As a leader, you have likely spent time thinking about the strengths that would make you, or leaders on your team, more effective. But the “street view” of leadership may reveal some entirely different ideas about what does and does not work. To get a street view, we studied the written comments on our Leadership Circle Profile 360. How do senior leaders describe the difference in the way the most effective and least effective leaders lead?
An independent research firm sorted our LCP 360 database of 100,000 leaders into two groups, the most creative leaders and the most reactive leaders. We then sampled those two groups to include 100 highly creative and 100 highly reactive leaders. These leaders were all senior executives from 176 large companies, covering 29 industries in six countries. The study included 2,893 raters who provided 900 pages of written comments. Quantitative and qualitative analysis were conducted on these two groups.
First, we looked at the relative effectiveness in these two groups. The creative leader group had average leadership effectiveness scores at the 87th percentile, compared with our norm base of about a million rater scores. The reactive leaders’ effectiveness scores averaged at the 10th percentile. But that’s not the most interesting part of the study.
We used matrix content analysis to discover the most frequently mentioned strengths for both groups. Researchers kept score of what strengths were mentioned and of how often a given strength was mentioned. The top 10 of 40 strengths most frequently attributed to the creative leaders are:
- Strong people skills.
- Team builder.
- Leads by example.
- Passion and drive.
- Good listener.
- Develops people.
- Empowers people.
- Positive attitude.
These strengths were mentioned on average 2.3 times more often for creative leaders than for reactive leaders. Here is a sample comment to one of the highly creative/effective leaders:
“Mary inspires people to enjoy working harder and smarter. She fosters an incredible team atmosphere, and she does it while maintaining a strong sense of honesty and directness (as opposed to just a rah-rah type of leader). She is not afraid to point out areas that need improvement, so when she endorses another’s idea, that person feels a true sense of accomplishment, and a strong desire to do it again.”
Contrast that with an endorsement for a highly reactive leader:
“Paul’s greatest strength is his keen mind. He is absolutely brilliant and has a powerful (and unique) combination of technical savviness, business acumen, and a reptilian charisma.”
Notice the difference between the two. Mary is praised for her team and people skills. Paul is praised for his technical know-how.
The Top 10 strengths in reactive leaders are in rank order:
- Drive and passion.
- Strong networker.
- Domain/technical knowledge.
- Results focused.
- Strong people skills.
- Positive attitude.
Creative leaders were endorsed more strongly on these skills as well. For example, strong people skills shows up on both lists; however, the endorsement score for creative leaders was 79 versus 28 for reactive leaders.
We analyzed the data further to learn what made the difference between these two groups of leaders, and discovered that creative and reactive leaders were equally endorsed on certain strengths that made no difference on a leader’s rated effectiveness. These non-differentiating strengths include: networking, domain/technical knowledge, intellectual brilliance, personal creative capability and a focus on results — all top strengths for reactive leaders.
We concluded that these strengths are all necessary to get into senior leadership positions. These strengths are foundational and essential, but they are not leadership. If a leader bases their leadership on these strengths and tries to drive results through their individual technical, intellectual, creative brilliance, and domain knowledge, they’re not really leading.
What did make the biggest difference in effective leadership was strong people and relationships capability. This may sound basic, but the data strongly supports what we should already know: Leadership is all about people. Leaders lead people. They do not lead tasks or results. They lead people to accomplish tasks and get results.
In addition to people skills, the best leaders are passionate, visionary and of high character. These strengths enhance the most effective leaders’ ability to leverage relationships. Effective leaders are good at relationships one-on-one, in groups and organizationally. In other words, the leader’s capability to scale relationships is non-negotiable if he or she is to be effective. Does your leadership scale?
Robert J. Anderson is the founder and chairman of The Leadership Circle and the Full Circle Group and co-author of Mastering Leadership. William A. Adams is the CEO of The Leadership Circle and the Full Circle Group and co-author of Mastering Leadership. To comment, email editor@CLOmedia.com.