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The Quarterly


Practical Leadership: understanding and developing competencies Print E-mail
The Quarterly 2011


Leadership books are a dime a dozen. Many are highly entertaining and become best sellers. Each of these has something to offer and many make easy bed time reading. However the debate about whether the mere act of reading a leadership book helps us to become better leaders is ongoing. There are a variety of genres from biography to opinion pieces to those based on research. It is inspiring to read about Nelson Mandela or Lord Nelson or George Washington. They were leaders for their times and environments, but is it possible to distill their leadership competencies and use them in our day to day lives? Stephen Covey's books are entertaining with simple messages, but how likely are we to put these messages into practice? In Search of Excellence has become passé over the years. Even Daniel Goleman's books based on research, are more helpful in understanding leaders we work with and understanding physiology of emotion, than in improving ourselves.

As I researched to find information to improve my coaching skills, it was refreshing to find a recently published and practical book. The book is based on wide ranging research of leaders and leadership situations and provides real and practical assistance in developing leadership both in ourselves and in our organisations. A warning! This book is not light bedtime reading. It is not what I would call entertaining or amusing. It requires attention while you read it. I often needed to re-read chapters to reflect more carefully and deeply on the messages. In addition, I would often find myself sitting somewhere quietly and further reflecting on information and applying this to situations in my own career or things I had observed in others. I reflected also on how I could use this in my coaching activities.

Like many other books on leadership, there is nothing that is really new. Much of what was written about, I intuitively knew, but this personal knowledge is based on many years in leadership positions, working with leaders and consulting to leaders in a variety of environments. It is not necessarily common knowledge for all in leadership positions or aspiring to leadership. It is the fact that the book is based on research rather than intuition, that it carefully distils competencies and provides reasons why they are important, that makes this book a useful addition to leadership discussions. In addition, it particularly focuses on how a good leader can become extraordinary by developing appropriate competencies and building on their existing strengths.

So what is this book? It is titled "The Extraordinary Leader" by John Zenger and Joseph Folkman. The book is the result of many years research, not just with the most senior leaders in an organisation but with leaders across all aspects of an organisation. In addition, it focuses on the competencies of the 90+ percentile of leaders so as to understand what really makes leaders extraordinary. There are no famous leaders here. There are just examples of people in their day to day jobs who are capable of doing extraordinary things and demonstrating extraordinary leadership.

The conceptual framework developed by Zenger and Folkman uses a tent analogy with a central pole and four poles for each corner of the tent. The central pole is CHARACTER, the core of all leadership effectiveness. This is the pole that is integral to the individual and when one examines the competencies related to this, the one most difficult to be able to actively change. The other four poles are:

  • FOCUS ON RESULTS: ability to have an impact on the organisation
  • INTERPERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS: impact of one person on a group of people
  • PERSONAL CAPABILITY: intellectual, emotional and skill makeup of the individual
  • LEADING ORGANISATIONAL CHANGE: ability to produce change in an organisation (only essential for those who achieve a position that can influence this)
The elements are associated with 16 competencies that have been found to be the most important in the development of extraordinary leaders:



1. Displaying high integrity and honesty
  • Act consistently
  • Follow through on promises
  • Model core values
  • Lead by example


2. Technical and professional expertise
  • Sought out for advice
  • In-depth knowledge leads to credibility
3. Solving problems and analysing issues
  • High professional judgement
  • Make good decisions based on mix of analysis, wisdom, experience, judgement
4. Innovation
  • Encourage alternative approaches
  • Creative solutions
  • Challenge the status quo
  • Create a learning culture
5. Practising self development
  • Constructive change based on feedback from others
  • Seek feedback to improve
  • Look for developmental opportunities
FOCUS ON RESULTS 6. Focus on results
  • Aggressively pursue all tasks to completion
  • Do everything possible to meet goals or deadlines
7. Establish stretch goals
  • High standards of performance
  • Set standards of excellence
  • Promote continuous improvement
8. Take responsibility for outcomes
  • Counted on to follow through on commitments
  • Go above and beyond call of duty


9. Communicating powerfully and prolifically
  • Skilled communication of new insights
  • Provide team with sense of purpose
  • Help people see how their work fits
10. Inspiring and motivating others to high performance
  • Energise others to go extra mile
  • Get others to achieve more than they thought possible
11. Building relationships
  • Trusted by their team
  • Balance concern for productivity with employee needs
  • Friendly and approachable
  • Tactfully handle difficult situations


12. Developing others
  • Concerned about developing others' careers
  • Provide balance of positive and constructive feedback
  • Provide honest feedback
  • Support others' growth and success
  • Take interest in the work of others
13. Collaboration and Teamwork
  • Cooperative working relationships with others in the organisation
  • Promote cooperation in the work group
  • Ensure the work unit works well with other groups and departments
14. Developing strategic perspectives
  • Know how their work relates to the business strategy
  • Translate organisation vision into meaningful goals for others
  • Has a long term view
15. Championing Change
  • Become champions for projects and get others to support them
  • Effective marketers of the group's work
16. Connect internal groups with the outside world
  • Effectively represent the work group to key external groups
  • Help people understand importance of customer needs

At first glance (and even at second or third glance) this list looks daunting. How is it possible to be expert in all of these competencies if one wishes to become an extraordinary leader? The good news is however, that research has shown that it is not necessary to be expert in all of the competencies. Extraordinary leaders are expert (i.e. above the 90th percentile compared with peers) at four or five of these competencies. In addition, the four or five competencies that make a person an extraordinary leader differ between leaders in different organisations and environments. In fact the competencies that make someone an extraordinary leader in one organisation may not translate to another organisation or environment. This has lessons for the clinician- clinician manager- leader with a clinical background progression.

Truly exceptional leaders combine their competencies with the organisation's needs and their own passions. The more these overlap, the more exceptional the leader will be. The identification of passion as an important factor in extraordinary leadership struck a significant chord with me. I have always subscribed to the tenet that if we engage clinicians in their passions and these align with organisational goals, we can develop true leaders. It was affirming to have this supported by Zenger and Folkman's research.

The authors also mention the halo effect that blinds people to areas of lower competency, so these are not seen as important in the extraordinary leader. The exception to this is where a leader has fatal flaws and Folkman and Zenger define a list of fatal flaws that need to be identified and eliminated in order to be an exceptional leader:

  1. Not inspiring due to lack of energy or enthusiasm
  2. Accepting mediocre performance
  3. Lack of clear vision and direction
  4. Loss of trust due to poor judgement or decisions
  5. Not a team player
  6. Not a good role model - doesn't walk the talk
  7. Doesn't learn from mistakes
  8. Lacks interpersonal skills
  9. Resistant to new ideas
  10. Focuses on self not on development of others

The list of fatal flaws is likely to ring a bell with most people as they reflect leaders they have known and why they have been difficult or even impossible to work with. This list clearly indicates that as a leader it is important to be receptive to feedback as others may find it easier to identify these fatal flaws than the leader themselves.

Another significant message from the book is the importance of what is referred to as "competency companions". Competency companions refer to those competencies that always seem to be displayed together in an extraordinary leader. If he or she is good at one, they are also good at the other. An example provided is that where the effective leader displays high technical expertise, he or she also displays high standards of excellence and strong interpersonal skills. A variety of competency companions are described in the book and one that particularly interested me was focus on results and concern for people. The ruthless focus on results leader is very difficult to work with. The focus on results leader that works with and empathically assists his or her team is an entirely different proposition. The outward results achieved by each will be the same but one damages the team and the other builds the team.

There does not appear to be a clear cause and effect relationship that explains effects of companion competencies. Mechanisms postulated for the leverage of competency companions include:

  • A perception that two competencies fit together
  • One competency facilitates the other
  • Achieving a high skill in one area helps develop a related behaviour
  • One competency functions as a building block of its companion
  • Developing a new skill changes a person as it has unexpected side effects

The above very briefly describes what I found the key messages of the book. The final chapters deal with how to use this information as an individual or as an organisation to become an extraordinary leader. The conclusions Zenger and Folkman come to are that although some individuals have a higher possibility of succeeding in leadership than others, good managers can become extraordinary leaders by experience, practice and learning. Details are provided as to specific activities and the specific mind set changes that are required by individuals. For organisations details are provided for the development of leadership teams. All of the suggestions made are practical and doable. All of them will assist any individual or organisation to significantly enhance leadership competencies by ongoing practice.

The aim of this article is reflect not only on your own leadership competencies, but also on those displayed in your organisation. It provides an opportunity to seek extraordinary leaders in your organisation and identify their top competencies. It should focus you on engaging others by identifying their passions and harnessing these to organisational goals. On an individual level, it can start to direct you to decide how you can become an extraordinary leader by developing those competencies that are needed in your organisation and which combine with your own passions. It can encourage you to seek more focussed feedback to identify if you have any fatal flaws that need addressing and might stymie your career in the future. It can also assist you in coaching others. Lastly it might encourage you to read the book!

John H Zenger and Joseph R Folkman
The Extraordinary Leader: Turning Good Managers into Great Leaders
McGraw Hill 2009

Dr Lee Gruner

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