19 Competencies that Differentiate the Best Leaders from the Worst.

How do you go from good to extraordinary?

author picture Article written by Morten Kamp Andersen

Effective leaders make a huge difference. Their efforts are reflected directly in employee engagement, customer satisfaction, profits, and the list continues. Hence, organisations that want to rank the best need to have the best and most effective leaders at all levels. We term such leaders as extraordinary.

But how do you go from good to extraordinary? In this article, we will introduce the Strengths-based approach to Leadership Development as well as the evidence behind it. But most importantly, we will help you identify which competencies are worth developing.

Here's why you should focus your energy on developing your strengths

If we look at the evidence for the effectiveness of leader development, we can clearly see that the development of a strength is the most effective approach towards leader development (see Figure 1). In a study conducted by Zenger & Folkman (2020), leaders were divided into two groups: one which worked on improving weaknesses and another which worked on developing strengths. The study showed that focusing on strengths produced an effect which was three times as great.

Figure 1: Leadership effectiveness before and after the development programme.

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It is, however, important not to neglect a leader’s weaknesses. Especially, if a leader possesses a so-called fatal flaw. Fatal flaws are typically characterized as a behaviour which has a destructive effect on a person’s effectiveness as a leader. If a fatal flaw is detected within a leader, it may be necessary to develop the given competency up to a certain level in order to prevent it from standing in the way of effective leadership.

Nevertheless, the conclusion is clear: If the objective is to become a better leader, then it is more effective to work on developing strengths rather than to focus on weaknesses.

What is a strength, really? And how should you measure it?

So, developing strengths is the most effective approach to leadership development. Yet, what is a strength? In our experience, whenever leaders talk about strengths, what they actually talk about is a number of different – and often contradictory – things. In our work, we have found it can be useful to define strengths as a competency which is ... (see Figure 2 below):

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The definition above concurs with the research which lies behind the Strengths-based approach. Moreover, it is also operationalizable, and this is essential. We recommend measuring the leader’s strengths via a 360-degree assessment and then compare this assessment with other leadership scores.

Studies show that 360-degree assessments give the most precise depiction of a leader’s effectiveness. Moreover, they best predict what level of effect their leadership will attain. The effect might be, for example, increased employee engagement, customer satisfaction, earnings and a lower employee turnover rate. Although this is a resource-intensive method, we believe that the effort required is easily offset by a more precise and actionable depiction of the leader’s competencies.

19 competencies to look for

Not all strengths, however, define an extraordinary leader. Some competencies are more critical than others. In a survey by ZengerFolkman, of more than 20,000 leaders and covering more than 2,000 competencies, it clearly emerged that certain competencies were more important than others in relation to a leader’s effectiveness (Zenger & Folkman, 2020). Nineteen competencies in particular separated the best 10% of leaders from the bottom 10% (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Competencies that differentiate the best leaders from the worst. 

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Thus, when it comes to developing as a leader, it is important to become extraordinarily adept within competencies which actually mean something in relation to being assessed as a good leader. What it comes down to, then, is having a sharp focus on the right competencies rather than on developing a competency that is not considered essential in a leader.

The path from good to extraordinary is different from the traditional approach to development. In order to succeed, you need to identify and develop complementary competencies. We call this cross-training. If you want to know more about the Strengths-based approach to Leadership Development, you can check out our new White Paper, in which we also present a clear-cut guide for how to develop the right competencies.

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