The collective impact of multiple great leaders delivers extraordinary results

Research-based Insights on ‘Extraordinary Leadership’ – Attributes & Impact (Part 1 of 2)

“What you do has far greater impact than what you say.”
— Stephen Covey


We all believe in the power of synergy – the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, yes? There is some ‘secret sauce’ that reacts when parts come together to build a ‘greater’ whole. However, does synergy work with leadership? We’ve also heard the saying “too many cooks spoil the broth”. Does extraordinary leadership involve the impact of a great individual leader on an organisation, or is it about about the impact of multiple leaders? I believe it is more than just about a single leader. It is about the collective impact of aligned leadership behaviours.

The purpose of this article is to share key research-based insights on the attributes and impact of ‘great leadership’ from a powerful book called “The Extraordinary Leader” (J.H. Zenger & J.R. Folkman, McGraw Hill, 2009). I will then apply these insights to create key suggestions for creating effective ‘leadership cultures’.

A follow-up article on this topic will summarise key research-based insights from the same book on developing ‘great leaders’ and the benefits for organisational performance. The book sets out a total of 20 research-based insights describing the link between leadership and organisational results. This article describes ten insights related to extraordinary leadership attributes.

Ten Insights on Extraordinary Leadership

So, why share insights from this particular book? As part of my ongoing exploration into the topics of ‘leadership’, ‘leadership culture’ and organisational performance, I have found this leadership book to be extremely valuable. Firstly, the book seeks to quantify the impact of great leadership and leadership development on organisational performance. Secondly, the book provides strong evidence for focussing on strengths, not weaknesses (this point ties into my own organisational experiences with the application of Appreciative Inquiry). Thirdly, Zenger & Folkman’s findings highlight the collective impact of great leadership behaviour. Let’s now review the findings:

  1. Great leaders make a huge difference when compared with merely good leaders. Researchers found top rated leaders (top 10% (90th decile) rated by managers, subordinates and peers) produced twice as much revenue as that of good leaders. Strong relationships were also found between leadership effectiveness and other organisational outcomes including profitability, employee commitment, turnover, and customer satisfaction. So… FACT… employing and developing great leaders is great (not just good) for business.
  2. One organisation can [and should] have many great leaders. Great organisations have not one but many great leaders. These organisations define greatness according to a standard, rather than by comparing people against each other. In fact, half an organisation’s leaders could ‘be great’ if developed properly. According to the research findings, the outcome from such a development initiative would be extraordinary organisational performance.
  3. Relationship between improved leadership and increased performance outcomes is neither incremental nor linear. When good leaders (11-80th decile) attempt incremental development but don’t experience incremental performance gains, they lose their motivation to change. Specific and significant changes in leadership behaviour are required to achieve increased performance outcomes (for more detail, refer to “Research-based Insights on ‘Great Leadership’ Part 2”).
  4. Leadership culminates in championing change. Researchers found the highest expression of leadership involves guiding organisational change. They set change as an important and ultimate criterion by which to measure leadership effectiveness.
  5. Effective leaders have widely different personal styles. There is no ‘right way’ to lead. Researchers found no particular personality trait/capability as being common to extraordinary leadership across different organisational contexts. Leadership is complex, diverse, and… contextual. This finding also means there is no panacea for developing great leaders. Effort must be invested in the contexualisation of leadership development programs.
  6. Effective leadership practices are specific to an organisation. Research findings indicate successful leaders who transfer from one organisation to another and don’t change their style/approach/practices to fit the new context are very likely to fail in their next role. Different organisations value different leadership competencies based on their context (vision, mission, business and operating models, etc.).
  7. Greatness is not caused by the absence of weakness. Researchers found that while most leaders did not possess any severe weaknesses, they were not perceived as strong leaders by research respondents. Mid-range leaders who had no major weaknesses but also no significant strengths were considered no more than average. However, the same leaders considered themselves to be good leaders (a possible example of poor self awareness?). Research found that the more strengths a leader had, the more the leader was considered to be ‘great’.
  8. Great leaders are not perceived as having major weaknesses. Supporting the insight above, great leaders may actually experience a pervasive ‘halo effect’. Despite actual weaknesses, great leaders were know most for their strengths, and any weaknesses were not recognised/overlooked.
  9. Leaders are made, not born. Using the example of the US Marine Corp, researchers reviewed leadership development practices and outcomes to confirm that leaders are (and can be) made.
  10. The quality of organisational leadership seldom exceeds that of the person at the top. A comparison of data gathered form multiple organisations confirmed that scores for leaders across the organisation rarely exceeded the scores of the most senior leader.

Application: Enhancing Leadership Culture

Before I apply these insights, let me provide my definition for ‘leadership culture’ and describe its importance to organisational performance. Leadership culture is the collective effect of leader behaviours within/on an organisation. A leadership culture contributes to, or impedes, the broader organisational culture’s ability to deliver business strategy. As part of this definition, I include formal and informal leaders. Accordingly, the impact of leadership culture on organisational culture and performance can be both overt and covert.

Let’s move now to application. Based on Zenger & Folkman’s research, combined with my own experience with leadership development and culture change, enhancing an organisation’s leadership culture, requires the following:

  • Context specific leadership standard. Identify the leadership capabilities/competencies/preferences that are applied by the great leaders in your field/business/industry/context. Use the findings to create a leadership standard that defines leadership success in your context.
  • Leader self-awareness. Build individual leader self-awareness using both leadership assessment and profiling tools. Make sure you apply your context specific leadership standard. Focus leader attention on their strongest areas. Build action plans that enhance existing strengths, as well as grow new strength areas. Avoid a focus on ‘fixing weaknesses’.
  • ‘Great leadership’ development.  Develop as many great leaders as practicable. Apply leadership development practices to both formal and informal leaders. Include the development of strong and productive working relationships. Create opportunities to build collaboration across the organisation’s leadership community.
  • Change leadership measures. Focus the measurement of leadership effectiveness on delivering organisational changes. Apply these criteria to both individual leaders, as well as the collective leadership community.
  • Most senior leader involvement. Any improvement in individual and collective leadership behaviour must involve the most senior organisational leader in also changing behaviour/improving capability. Otherwise, leadership change efforts are highly unlikely to be effective and/or be sustained over time.

Conclusion: Make Great Leaders!

A critical enabler in achieving extraordinary organisational performance involves the harnessing of your ‘leadership culture’. Rather than simply selecting and following a single organisational champion, it involves developing and harnessing the collective impact of multiple great leaders acting in alignment, playing to their strengths, with a focus on delivering complex organisational change. Enhancing the organisation’s leadership culture is achieved through context specific assessment, development, and collaboration.

Future articles will focus on the following:

  • process and impact of ‘great leadership’ development,
  • effective strategies for changing leadership behaviour, and
  • delivering business strategy and transformation through leadership effectiveness.

Let me know your thoughts!

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