Great Leaders Are Made NOT Born

LAST UPDATE ON June 28, 2023


Great leaders make a huge difference when compared to merely good leaders. The more great leaders you develop in your organisation, the more it will become an outstanding organisation.

Too good to be true?

What if we showed you statistics that implied an incremental improvement of leadership effectiveness of your good leaders will not exponentially boost your company’s performance? Would that provoke you to think about what you can do to make them rise to higher levels so that your organisation becomes extraordinary? Or is being a ‘good’ company good enough for you?

We believe there is no reason to accept mediocrity in leadership any more than in software programming, customer service, or selling.

How would you respond if we produced data that verified employee satisfaction had a substantially more positive result when there is greater leadership effectiveness? Would that stir your inquisitiveness on how that is possible and implementable?

How about proof that top leaders from a large insurance company cut the average turnover rate in their groups by 10% compared to leaders in the bottom range, and by 5% compared to those in the mid-range? And we know that reduced turnover directly impacts profitability, customer satisfaction, and in this case, claim-resolution speed.

If we indeed produced such figures, what would you do differently? Would you be happy with the good performance in your team, or would you like your team to rise to higher levels, become great leaders; moving your team and perhaps even your organisation to be more outstanding?

Assuming you say you’d like to see them rise to higher levels, after all which leader would want their teams and organisations to remain at a plateau, right, how can it be done? Is it even realistic to have everybody in my organisation to be great leaders or even just my team alone?

Aren’t great leaders born? Can they be made? And can ALL my team members possibly become great leaders? If it is indeed possible, wouldn’t I lose them to competitors after they become great?

Defining a great leader

Genetic makeup does appear to account for about one-third of the traits and behaviours that define exceptional leaders[1]. Some people are born with a high energy level, keen intellect and emotional hardiness. These are helpful traits, but they fail to explain the late-blooming leader. They also fail to explain the promising youth who gets derailed and never recovers.

But what makes a great leader great in the first place? What are their traits and behaviours?

A definition of an extremely effective leader offered by Zenger Folkman is one who produces high productivity, low turnover, high customer satisfaction, high profitability, innovation and positive relationships with suppliers. Based on research carried out by them, great leadership consists of possessing several building blocks of capabilities. And each of these building blocks complement the other building blocks.

These building blocks include

  • Character
  • Personal capabilities
  • Focus on results
  • Interpersonal skills and
  • Leading organisational change

However, possessing just one of these building blocks is not likely to cause you to be rated at the high-percentile in terms of overall leadership. To be a highly effective leader, one needs to have at least one strength under each of these building blocks. But more of that later.

What happens if my leaders are not all great?

The advantage of having great leaders in an organisation is that the organisation will be stronger. Stronger as they are able to be role models for the entire organisation. Stronger as there is now an elevated standard of performance that is set within the organisation. And multiple other reasons.

A company of great leaders results in higher employee satisfaction, net profits and customer satisfaction. It also lowers employee turnover and intention to leave. Who wouldn’t want that, right?

What then happens if my leaders are not all great?

Well, poor leaders naturally have an adverse impact on the groups they try to lead as well as on the overall performance of the organisation they are in. However, it is the results of the middle deciles that would have a significant impact on any organisation. Just take a look at one aspect, employee satisfaction. Based on research, employee satisfaction substantially improves as leadership effectiveness increases.

Source: The Extraordinary Leader: Turning Good Managers Into Great Leaders, John H Zenger & Joseph R Folkman.

Can great leaders be made?

We are convinced that, to a great degree, leaders can be made.

Based on research and data from hundreds of thousands of leadership assessments by Zenger Folkman from the direct reports of leaders, their peers, bosses and themselves, it is indeed possible to unravel the mystery of leadership, understand the nature of leadership and how best to develop it. These are first-hand studies of leadership based on actual data points, not from experiences or observations of leaders.

For example, based on data gathered from leaders in the healthcare industry across the world, it was found that the five behaviours that drive employee commitment in this industry are:

  1. Skilful at getting people to stretch for goals that go beyond what they originally thought possible
  2. Energises others to achieve exceptional results
  3. Creates an atmosphere of continual improvement in which self and others push to exceed the expected results
  4. Inspires others to high levels of effort and performance
  5. Keeps people focused on the highest priority goals

If you knew what the top five behaviours that drove employee commitment in your industry or in your organisation, what would you do differently? Would you start to develop your leaders differently?

A client of ours in the automotive services industry believed that their key leaders could become great leaders. When one of their key personnel, a senior leader in operations, had joined their Asia operations from Europe, he came with his authoritative-directive style of leadership. His leadership style didn’t sit well with his team members. Instead of shipping him back home, his company had him join a leadership development programme that caused him to realise and understand what his team members desired in a leader.

Working with us through one-to-one executive coaching sessions and attending our leadership programme, he was able to focus on how to change his communication style and lead his team more effectively.

Before his tenure was over, another 360 degree feedback was conducted and his results improved. However, he was taken aback when his team became emotional when they found out he was leaving them. He had not realised the extent of impact he had made on them during his short term with the company. What a turnaround.

He, and others we have worked with, is a living testimony that great leaders can indeed be made.

Are you keen on creating an organisation of top performers? What difference would it make to you? Get in touch with us if you’d like to explore creating that team. We’ll be happy to start a discussion with you.

Published by Lifeskills Institute Pte Ltd

Lifeskills Institute is the strategic partner of Zenger Folkman for Singapore and Malaysia.
Our Chief Enabling Officer, Ian Tan is a Master Facilitator certified by Zenger Folkman.

Zenger Folkman is a strengths-based leadership development company helping leaders elevate their people and organisations. Co-founders Dr. Jack Zenger and Dr. Joe Folkman utilise empirical data and behavioral evidence to help leaders become extraordinary.

[1] The Extraordinary Leader: Turning Good Managers Into Great Leaders, John H Zenger & Joseph R Folkman