With examples of leadership failure hitting the headlines on a regular basis, including Mike Ashley’s assertion that, “I can’t be responsible for every single thing that goes on at Sports Direct”, surely the image of the omnipotent leader should finally be laid to rest.

Yet still I encounter people who feel they have to be good at every leadership dimension to justify taking on a leadership role.

This has two critical consequences

  1. Some leaders, assuming they have to be seen to be good at everything, are making decisions so far out of their areas of competence they are damaging their business.
  2. Potential leaders who recognise they have areas of weakness feel they have no place at the top table, which is a tragic waste of talent.

David Pendleton and Adrian Furnham present a strengths matrix in their book, Leadership: All You Need To Know which proposes a more positive way of looking at leadership competence gaps. 

The matrix presents four possible positions:

1. Natural strengths

These are the strengths that the leader is able to implement easily into their leadership style. Their personality reinforces the strength and makes it more effective, so leaders need little encouragement to work with these strengths. These natural strengths are often the ones that got the leader to where they are today, but there can be a danger the leader becomes over dependent on a strength that does not work in every circumstance.

2. Potential strengths

These are the strengths that would sit naturally with the leader’s personality but he or she has not had sufficient opportunity to use or develop those strengths. This weakness is one that can be worked on and developed through training and experience. It’s an excellent opportunity for the individual to become a more rounded leader.

3. Fragile strengths

Fragile strengths are those areas in which the individual has a natural ability but their performance is inhibited by their personality traits. This kind of strength also benefits from being worked on. Sir Richard Branson, for instance, appears to be a confident, relaxed communicator, but as he once told a conference: “Believe it or not, despite all appearances I have always been naturally shy”.

4. Resistant limitations

Where an area of weakness coincides with a personality that makes it unlikely it will ever become a strength, it makes sense for the individual and the organisation to work around this area of weakness.

It would be folly to invest time and money in trying to develop a genuinely resistant limitation into a strength. In a worst case scenario it could even be damaging to the business and to the confidence of the individual.

Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton also make this point in their book Now Discover Your Strengths. Based on analysis of interviews with nearly two million participants Buckingham and Clifton concluded: “the most effective method for motivating people is to build on their strengths rather than correcting their weaknesses”.

This is all well and good, but is it really unreasonable to expect the people at the top of an organisation to be good at all the key elements of leadership?

I’d argue that it is, and I’d go as far as to say that any leader who claims they have no gaps in their leadership skills is deluding him or herself and the shareholders.

Which is why leadership teams are so important.

One of the most liberating ideas from Pendleton and Furnham’s work is the proposition that comprehensive leadership competence can best be provided by a balanced leadership team. So if, for example, a CEO is equipped to develop a clear strategic direction but struggles to take the company with her, she may find that her Director of Operations has the relevant strengths in that area to cover the gap.

A CEO who employs in his or her own image will struggle to develop this kind of team approach and if left to chance there is no guarantee that all the key leadership strengths are covered. So it makes sense to have a strategic approach to developing a balanced leadership team.

A leadership team competence audit can help identify any gaps in a team and so provides a helpful input into leadership development and training priorities, recruitment strategies and succession planning.

The Primary Colours® of Leadership Model is an excellent framework for this kind of assessment and alignment. If you are interested in addressing competence gaps in your leadership team, please get in touch.

Grahame Russell