The Myth of the Well-Rounded Leader

Tennis racquet on clay court

It’s performance appraisal time already for one of my clients. Managers are busy assigning individual ratings and reviewing how people have achieved the goals they set 12 months ago(!). A common part of this process is assessing performance against a prescribed list of behavioural competencies. Underpinning these competencies is an assumption: that to be a high performer, an individual should be good across the board. Especially as a leader. No major flaws and a good balance of interpersonal and critical thinking skills. Decisive and action-oriented, but also strategic and non-directive, in equal measure. This is the Myth of the Well-Rounder Leader. But what if that was a recipe for the “bland leading the bland” as Marcus Buckingham1, bestselling author, puts it?

Organisational practices like performance management processes, interview criteria and talent management systems all reinforce the need to be good across a broad range of factors. We hear it in stories too, about leaders with vision that are infallible and have no weaknesses. Incredible managers who know exactly what to do even in the most unprecedented of situations. Passion and a strong work ethic can overcome gaps or challenges of any kind …until they can’t. If this year teaches us anything about the world of work, it’s that existing organisational practices can be challenged and changed, and for the better.

Why is the well-rounded leader a myth?

Watch out for the significant downsides of trying to cover all bases. Here are three important unintended, but very real, issues that I have observed in my 20 years developing leaders:

“All too often, leaders can become a bottleneck for decision making, which puts them under more pressure and frustrates everyone else”

Andy Jenkins, My Leadership Strengths
  1. Lack of psychological safety as people feel reluctant to reveal weaknesses or disclose mistakes. Why should they when the leader doesn’t seem to have any? This makes it risky for people to put forward new ideas or alternatives and seriously stifles innovation.
  2. Failure to delegate and empower others (which is crucial for highly-skilled, technical professionals). All too often, leaders can become a bottleneck for decision making, which puts them under more pressure and frustrates everyone else.
  3. Struggle to really connect with people and create a foundation of trust and openness. With rising workplace mental health issues, the importance of talking frankly about how things are going personally and professionally is hard to underestimate.

The alternative to being a well-rounded leader? Strengths based leadership.

“The best people are spiky” (Marcus Buckingham1). Outstanding performers in any field of practice do not fit a mould. In fact they have clearly unbalanced attributes. Rafael Nadal’s left-handedness is so dominant that he literally runs around his backhand. He plays to his strengths to get results.

This is not just a feature of elite sports. Zenger and Folkman2 have carried out extensive research on leadership and their analysis of 360 assessments across 100,000 leaders is conclusive. According to them “a lack of weakness is not a distinguishing feature of the best leaders”. For clarity, this does not mean ignoring critical weaknesses (Nadal’s backhand is not an Achilles heel). Their research shows that the most effective leaders, across industries, have a small number of standout strengths.

“Playing to your strengths as a leader is…a real game changer for those that you have the privilege to lead”

Leadership is a team sport

The key difference between leadership and tennis is that leadership is all about the performance of others, not your own. It is a team sport. As a leader, you can call upon your team members to bring their unique talents to any problem or crisis. ‘Strengths-based team working’ not only gets the best from others. It also enables you as a leader to spend time playing to your individual strengths. It is a win-win. Using your strengths is energising, and evidence shows there are a number of benefits. They include feeling happier, having more self-esteem, confidence and energy, less stress, and faster learning3.

Playing to your strengths as a leader is liberating. It is not only is it a way of sustaining your own individual performance and energy during extremely testing times. It is a real game changer for those that you have the privilege to lead.

Written by Andy Jenkins MCIPD. Andy is a qualified strengths practitioner and Co-Founder of My Leadership Strengths

This article was first published in the Healthskills October newsletter 2020


1 Nine Lies About Work (2019) by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall

2 Jack Zenger ‘Developing Strengths or Weaknesses’ (2019)

3 Cappfinity ‘Strengths Profile White Paper’ (2018)

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