How to make a good leader extraordinary? Cross-training is the key.

12 April 2021

It is only possible to master a competency to a high level by using other competencies in tandem.

author picture Article written by Morten Kamp Andersen

Strengths-based leadership development is an innovative approach to effective leadership development. Unlike traditional leader development programs which places focus on the improvement of weaknesses, we advocate an approach that strengthens existing competencies within a leader.

In our blog 19 Competencies that Differentiate the Best Leaders from the Worst, we presented the evidence behind the strengths-based approach to leadership development as well as the 19 differentiating competencies, that separate the 10% best leaders from the 10% worst. So how do you move from good to extraordinary? The strengths-based method demands an alternative approach compared to the traditional focus on weaknesses. Going from 8 to 10 on a ten-point scale takes a different mindset, approach and form of training than what is needed to go from 2 to 4. We call that cross-training.

Running as a real-life example of the need for cross-training

To grasp the concept of cross-training, I would like to use running as an analogy. Imagine that you want to run a 10-kilometre race in six months’ time. If you are a very unexperienced runner (i.e., running is a week competency), then a good piece of advice would be to get yourself a good pair of running shoes, to develop a running programme and to start training. Maybe you also want to join a running club, buy a book called ‘how to run 10k’ or get a running buddy. If you follow this advice, then you will likely go from being a bad runner to a relatively good one. We call this type of development linear training.

On the other hand, if you’re already a good runner: Say you can run 10 kilometres in 45 minutes at present (a good competency), but you would like to bring your time down to 35 minutes (an extraordinary competence). What would be the best advice in that case? The above advice on getting the right equipment, information, running programmes, and so on, will not be relevant in this scenario. You are already really good. You have optimised your running as best you can, you have taken on board all of the best advice and you have read all the books. Doing more of the same will not take you from being good to being extraordinary. Instead, you will need to adopt a different mindset in relation to your development.

In order to succeed, the linear tactics above will no longer suffice. We know that really good runners supplement their race training with other activities such as swimming to train their lung efficiency, mental endurance training and strength training at the gym. In other words, they use other forms of sport and exercise which are not directly related to running in order to improve their running. Why do they do that? Because it is only possible to master a competency to a high level by using other competencies in tandem. This form of training is called cross-training and it is completely different to linear training in its approach.

How does it work in practice?

So, now we know how to run faster… Let’s look at how to implement cross-training in a professional context. Professional or work-related competencies can be developed in precisely the same way as running. In order to develop effectively, the competent leader should begin by cross-training a competency that they already master to a good degree (a strength). Most importantly, this competency should be among Zenger & Folkman’s 19 differentiating competencies.


In a highly recommendable article published in the Harvard Business Review entitled "Making Yourself Indispensable," Zenger & Folkman write about the cross-training of leaders. The two authors describe how they undertook a huge data-based project to investigate the correlation between different competencies. Through this work, they have mapped out a methodology on how to cross-train competencies. One example is illustrated below.


The figure shows that if a leader masters both professional expertise and communication, then there is an 82% probability that the leader is among the 25% best leaders in the world. However, if the leader only possesses a strength within professional expertise, then the likelihood is only 14%. Thus, communication is a suitable cross-training exercise for professional expertise. One reason for this is that a leader’s professional expertise is only able to shine through when it can be communicated effectively.

Another example of a great interaction effect is between the competencies of integrity and assertive behaviour. Assertive behaviour can be used as a means of attaining extraordinary integrity. Assertive behaviour is about daring to express your feelings, opinions and needs clearly, unequivocally and honestly with respect for yourself and for others. Thus, it supports the competence of integrity to a great extent.

Zenger & Folkman has identified 5-10 complementary competencies to each of the 19 differentiating competencies. Using cross-training as an approach to leadership development has proven to help a leader go from good to extraordinary. If you want to know more about cross-training and complementary competencies, you can download our new white paper for free or visit our website.

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