How to be a good leader?

As data on these differentiating behaviors were accumulated over the last several years, we asked the question, “Which of the 16 is the bes...

As data on these differentiating behaviors were accumulated over the last several years, we asked the question, “Which of the 16 is the best differentiator?” Out of more than 100,000 assessments on almost 8,000 leaders, a clear first among equals emerged. The item identified as the highest-ranking differentiating behavior is inspires and motivates to high performance. Specifically, this analysis showed that when comparing the top 10 percent of leaders to the bottom 10 percent, this one behavior most powerfully separated these two groups. We also compared the top 10 percent against the first through the fiftieth percentiles and found the same result.

In our continued analysis of various data sets from different organizations, countries, and cultures, we found that whenever that competency was used, it was invariably the best differentiator.

We performed another analysis with this set of assessment data. In listing each of the 16 differentiating behaviors, we asked raters to choose which differentiating behavior, if done with a high level of skill, would have the greatest impact on the leader’s ability to be successful in his current job.

Again, the competency that was chosen most frequently was inspires and motivates to high performance. The leaders who were being assessed chose that as the one competency with the most impact.

As we coached leaders around the world, we took note of how many selected inspires and motivates to high performance as the strength they most wanted to build. This item again was their most frequent choice.

After we discovered these results, we asked a more difficult question regarding the bottom-line impact of this item: “Are there measurable outcomes that inspirational leaders create?”

The employee commitment index asks each person who directly reports to the leader to respond to five questions about her personal work experience. These questions assess the following:

  • Satisfaction with the organization
  • Intention to stay employed
  • Willingness to give extra effort
  • Confidence in the success of the organization
  • The extent to which she would recommend this organization to others as a good place to work
This index has a very strong correlation with other popular employee engagement indexes.


Our previous research for The Extraordinary Leader found that leaders who had exceptional leadership qualities (e.g., above the eightieth or ninetieth percentile) were able to achieve substantially better outcomes. Extraordinary leaders had lower turnover, higher customer satisfaction, higher profitability, and higher commitment and engagement on the part of their employees. In this we showed similar results for leaders who were very effective at inspiring and motivating others. All this analysis led to the question, “How do leaders move from being good at inspiring others to being extraordinary?”

When we looked at exceptional leaders, we discovered several things that we had expected, and a few things that surprised us. We were not surprised that they were not perfect, nor were we surprised that the qualities that made them extraordinary were different for different people.

When we asked groups to think about a leader whom they would consider extraordinary, we then asked, “What did that leader do exceptionally well?” “What were that leader’s strengths?” In response, we heard a variety of different answers:
  • The leader had a clear vision and communicated it effectively.
  • The leader drove hard for exceptional results.
  • The leader cared about and developed people.
  • The leader had high integrity and honesty.
  • The leader was technically savvy.
We then asked if the leader had any weaknesses. Nearly everyone, when asked, could readily identify a weakness, even in these extraordinary leaders. Often the weaknesses were not trivial. Some leaders lacked the ability to think strategically, while others had difficulty staying on top of the administrative detail of their position.

Some lacked people skills and preferred to “hole up” in their office. Others were novices regarding the technology of the business and resisted “rolling in the dirt” when it came to anything technical.

This exercise demonstrates exactly what we found in our research. What characterized extraordinary leaders was not the absence of weaknesses. Rather, it was the presence of a few profound strengths. All leaders seemed to have some weaknesses, but the real differentiation of a great leader from a poor leader was that extraordinary leaders had profound strengths and used a variety of mechanisms to compensate for any weaknesses. In some cases, that meant hiring someone with complementary skills. In other cases, it meant restructuring the job so that others performed the activities that the executive struggled with. Many people assume that the path to extraordinary performance is to eliminate all weaknesses. Their unspoken assumptions are, “Whatever strengths I have will take care of themselves,” and “Getting better means discovering what I’m bad at and fixing that.” Therefore, they focus their development efforts on the things they don’t do well.

The problem with this approach is that typically people are not very interested in or passionate about their most significant weaknesses, and therefore they don’t improve much. We have found that a key to improvement for every person is to have passion.

how to be a good leader
Working on a behavior that you are interested in creates a much higher probability that real change will occur.

The analysis that propelled us to this conclusion was one that specifically looked at the impact of strengths. Strength in a competency was defined as performing at the ninetieth percentile. The results confirmed that it wasn’t the absence of flaws but the presence of strengths that made exceptional leaders. We recently conducted a new analysis, using another substantial database, and found extremely similar results. Figure 4-1 comes from the second study and shows the results from 7,195 leaders.

In this study, leaders were assessed on the 16 differentiating competencies. Note in the figure that leaders with no strengths have an average effectiveness rating of the thirty-fifth percentile. But when leaders do one thing very well, their effectiveness rating jumps to the sixty-third percentile. Strength in just 3 out of the 16 lifts people to the eightieth percentile.


Once we understood the impact of profound strengths, we wanted to understand how leaders go about developing a profound strength. Most people assume that the same process that helps a person move from poor to good performance would work for going from ordinary to extraordinary performance. In our previous post, on how leaders can become extraordinary, we describe our conclusion that the process of building a strength requires a radically different approach from that used to fix a weakness.

The following case study illustrates the problem with this approach:
When Ralph first joined the company as a new graduate in mechanical engineering, he did not know much about how to build a rocket engine. When asked if his undergraduate schooling had prepared him for this kind of work, he said, “Well, it provided some theoretical insights, but I think that playing with fireworks in the backyard was more helpful.”

To learn the fundamentals, Ralph was assigned to work with an engineer who had been building rockets for 20 years. He was an excellent mentor. Ralph also attended technical conferences and started reading journals and technical papers related to this new field. He worked hard to learn all that he could, and after five years his mentor told him that Ralph knew more than he did about building rockets.

Ralph was promoted to manage a new project, but as he began his new assignment, he felt that his technical knowledge was good but not great. He enjoyed the technical aspects of his job and wanted to use his technical and analytical skills as a platform for his career. The difficult question was, “How do I move from good to great?”

His mentor could not really help him, and all of his peers were generally at the same technical level. He had read all the literature that was available and felt that he was up-todate, but no one thought of him as having a profound strength in his technical expertise. Classes, reading, mentoring, and varied assignments had helped Ralph learn the basics and go from being a newbie to possessing a reasonable level of competence. Yet for Ralph to develop a profound strength in his technical expertise, it was going to require him to do something different from what he had done before. His approach had to change.


Most people assume that individuals can be great in one thing without being exceptionally competent in other areas. In a recent workshop a participant asked the question, “Can a leader be at the ninety-ninth percentile on drive for results and the first percentile on interpersonal skills?” The reply from one of the authors was no.

To have an exceptional ability to deliver results, leaders would need to have trust and cooperation from their direct reports. A useful way to visualize this is to think of competencies as having bungee cords connecting them. There is only so much stretch in the bungee cord. When the difference between competencies become extreme, one competency pulls back on the other competency. A careful examination of the data, however, reveals a fascinating pattern. For leaders with one strength at the ninetieth percentile, on average their second-highest-scoring competency was at the eighty-fourth percentile, and their third-highest-scoring competency was at the seventy-ninth percentile. The bottom line is, leaders who scored high on one competency were, in general, remarkably good at a few other competencies. Simply stated, there is an amazing interaction effect among various competencies. The following analysis demonstrates these interaction effects.

Three competencies were analyzed to understand the power of the interactions between them. We examined those leaders who were at the seventy-fifth percentile or higher on each of the three competencies and found the percentage of leaders who were at the ninetieth percentile in overall leadership development programs effectiveness who possessed only one of the characteristics. Keep in mind that a competency at the seventy-fifth percentile would not be considered a profound strength but rather a competency where a person is moderately good. The three competences are shown in Chart 4-1.

This analysis demonstrates that being moderately good at one competency does not guarantee that you will be perceived as extraordinary in an overall way. In fact, the probabilities are so low that you could describe it as almost impossible.

We then looked at leaders who possessed more than one of these three competencies at the seventy-fifth percentile. When leaders possessed combinations of strengths, they were elevated to the highest ranks of leadership traits in their organizations.

Note the interaction effect when a person is competent at all three skills (see Chart 4-2).

The results are quite dramatic. As you consider the case involving Ralph and his dilemma on how to improve his technical ability, it might stand to reason that when one improves other skills, one’s technical skills might be more fully utilized. For example, Ralph might understand the technical issues but lacked leadership communication.

After looking at these data and testing these conclusions for more than five years, it has become clear to us that the way leaders develop strengths is by utilizing other skills. It is the combination of skills that creates profound strength. Great dishes prepared by the best chefs are not the result of a single ingredient; they are the result of a recipe with multiple ingredients. Leadership characteristics list comes about by mixing the right leadership characteristics together and finding the right chemistry to create powerful combinations.


How does a leader move from being ordinary to being extraordinary at inspiring others? In earlier post we described the impact of inspiration on a number of critical outcomes. The better leaders were at inspiring others, the better they did on each of the outcomes. In today’s organizations, with fierce competition and ever increasing demands, there is a significant need for leaders who can inspire.

Because good does not equal great when it comes to inspiration, how does a leader make this transition to becoming an extraordinary inspirer of others? Almost everyone knows someone who tries too hard to inspire and motivate others to high performance by simply turning up the volume. There are at least two different approaches.

Positive Approach

This would include the following:
  • Pep talks and platitudes
  • Catchphrases, such as “You can do it,” “Never give up,” or “The sky is the limit”
  • Extreme optimism that fails to recognize realities
Jan was very frustrated. She had tried several times to get her manager to understand that there was a significant problem with a project she was working on. “Every time I go to my manager and try to help him understand the problem, he listens for a few minutes and then starts saying things like, “Jan, I know you can do it” or “I am confident that we can overcome any problems if we just try harder.”

Jan went on to say, “As I try to explain the problem further, I can tell that, first, he doesn’t understand anything that I am talking about, and, second, he just doesn’t care.” Jan was convinced that her manager merely wanted the problem to go away. Her final comment was, “What drives me nuts is that he thinks that stupid speech motivates me it does just the opposite.”

Negative Approach

  • Constant reminders of what people are doing wrong
  • Unrelenting nagging
  • Pushing people to achieve better results
Jim was a senior manager in charge of a large group of engineers. He commented that he hated Mondays. He went on to say that every Monday he had a standing 30-minute call with his manager. “I just can’t stand her grinding on me every week,” he said. He went on to say, “Those 30 minutes of harangue are about all I can take.” When asked what grinding was, Jim replied, “It’s just continually reminding me of our performance problems, asking me what went wrong, how can I prevent this in the future, why didn’t I see that problem coming, and specifically what am I going to do about the problem this week.”

When asked if the “grinding” motivated him to improve, Jim commented, “It doesn’t matter how well we do or what we accomplish; she’ll always find something to grind on me about.”


How, then, can a person become extremely good at a specific skill? To understand this, we looked at evaluations from 183,463 colleagues regarding 14,466 leaders. We found groups of competencies that, when paired with “inspiring and motivating others,” created powerful combinations. We called these competency companions.

The combination of the two skills—the desired one and a companion one—increases effectiveness and is often easier to carry out. For example, consider how an ice skater might use a combination of skills to increase effectiveness. A great ice skater can jump into the air and land gracefully on the ice. Coordination is certainly a critical skill for the skater. But performing a jump that rises only two inches off the ice is not going to be very thrilling. Add a companion skill, such as strength, and it is another story. A triple axel is very thrilling and requires great strength, but it’s thrilling only if the skater doesn’t fall while landing the jump. The combination of coordination and strength is what makes the skater effective.

In our research, we looked at people who were highly effective in a specific behavior. Detailed analysis showed that people who were most effective in performing Behavior A also rated highly in several companion behaviors (Behaviors B, C, D, E, and F). Similarly, people who rated poorly in performing Behavior A also rated poorly in the same companion behaviors. It became clear that improving performance in companion behaviors might facilitate improvement in the specific behavior.

For additional information and resources on nonlinear companions, on the importance of strengths, and on the heightened success that comes from developing strengths versus weaknesses.



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Thought Leadership Zen: How to be a good leader?
How to be a good leader?
Thought Leadership Zen
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