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!

Dramaturgical Sociology blows my mind and my views on conventional change mgt

I love this article/chapter! It really does get me thinking about how we approach change today, and how we could be doing it better!

In the attached pdf, Goffman’s “Dramaturgical Sociology” theory is outlined. Goffman uses the metaphor of social life as dramatic ritual to explore social interaction and change. Goffman argues that the self is not an entity that is immutable or separate from its surroundings, but that it arises in the very process of a ‘performance’ – i.e. the self needs context, interplay, and other characters to ‘feed off’ in order to exist! Wow!

Goffman believes that talking about the individual as some sort of autonomous agent is incorrect. Instead, he argues the individual should be thought of always in relationship to a social whole. For Goffman, the fundamental unit of social analysis is not the individual but rather what he refers to as the “team.” He writes, “a teammate is someone whose dramaturgical cooperation is dependent upon in fostering a given definition of the situation”. Teams, then, are responsible for the creation of perceptions of reality in social settings. The crux of his dramaturgical social theory is that the analysis of how teams cooperate to foster particular impressions of reality reveals a complex system of interactions that, in many ways, is like the presentation of a play. If we were to apply this theory in its entirety to existing approaches to business/organisational change, it would radically change the way we undertake change/transformation programs.

To date, I have made one recent attempt at using this theory to define a client’s strategic change objectives and journey by writing a ‘future-paced’ story about the client’s successful transformation. While objectives and a story were created from the approach, more work and detail is required to articulate and embed the ‘play’ into the organisation’s psyche as its anchor for the transformation.  Over the coming weeks I will be seeking to apply the theory in greater detail to support the design of a client’s future state culture and three year ‘blueprint’/roadmap. Keen to hear views.

Great summary on changing behaviour using informal networks to positively “infect” our organisations

Thanks Dr Leandro Herrero! This is great stuff. It reaffirms my own beliefs and pursuit of behavioural change as the key to organisational transformation and success – as long as you don’t try to boil the ocean…  My former mentor/colleague Jon Katzenbach had another great summary which I have amended to reflect my latest thinking:

“focus on changing the few critical behaviours which matter most in key populations to generate momentum for change. Build positive role models and peer pressure that attracts people to becoming part of the new world (and its associated behaviours)”

Please watch this video on Dr Leandro Herrero’s view on Viral Change. It really is a great summary…

Career midlife crises point to an absence of purpose in lives of highflying professionals

In an article by Australian School of Business, the topic of career midlife crisis is discussed. It appears that we are now likely to have multiple crises as transitions between different career stages (e.g. learning the ropes, becoming established, making a difference, moving on) become less related to tenure, and more related to the accelerated delivery of organisational outcomes, achievement mindsets, leadership programs that encourage greater self awareness, and changing expectations.

While an interesting article in it’s own right, it lends direct/indirect weight to the following points:

  1. External motivators (money, possessions, external recognition) have limited sustained value in driving staff performance
  2. Being connected to some interest/purpose greater than yourself (your own needs/desires) is a key to personal fulfilment
  3. Taking time to reflect on a regular basis is likely to keep you on the right track
  4. Working with others in community/relationship will drive greater commitment/accountability

One of the challenges with cultural change work in organisations is that fostering greater self awareness can and does lead some nominated talent to select different paths to pursue outside their organisation. I believe this side effect can be mitigated by clearly articulating how an organisation’s vision/mission/strategy is helping address the needs of real customers/service recipients.

You can download a copy of the article at:

Rewiring the Boss – an article on changing entrenched leadership behaviour using neuroplasticity

Have a read of the attached article – key points related to behavioural change is possible, it requires time, commitment and action by the learner/executive…

Rewiring the Boss.pdf

Key aspects of the approach involve developing a long term relationship with the learner/executive, a recognition by the learner that change is required, a growing sense of self awareness in the learner, as well as ongoing experiential learning opportunities.  For example, a specific strategy involves getting the executive to change their behaviour in the context of coaching others.