A summary of the recent session delivered by Ben Vernazza (Principal Consultant and Head of Assessment at Edgecumbe Consulting Group) at Hogrefe’s ‘Leadership Assessment 2024.0’ event.

Great leadership is fundamental to organisations of all shapes and sizes: nations, corporations, hospitals, educational institutions and sports teams. However, being able to pin down what leadership is, is not so straightforward. Philosophers and scholars have been debating this question for millennia. So, unsurprisingly leadership means different things to different people.

The way we think of leadership at Edgecumbe is that it concerns creating the conditions for individuals, teams and organisations to succeed. Therefore, the primary impact that leaders have on performance is indirect. That is, leaders can do little to affect results directly, but their actions can have a major impact on those who can. What leaders can do is shape the climate (the way it feels to work here), which affects the engagement of employees, which in turn leads to employees releasing their discretionary effort and this then impacts performance.

Proposition 1: What do leaders need to do

Our co-founder Professor David Pendleton set out to explain what leaders need to do create the conditions for success. The intention was to develop a simple, coherent and memorable guide for busy leaders and professionals which was evidence based and relevant to twenty-first century workforces. This map of the territory of leadership is called the Primary Colours® Model and it is taught at leading business schools such as Oxford Saïd, Henley, Kings and Alliance Manchester.

Consistent with the leadership literature, there are three main areas of leadership, covering the:

  • Strategic domain – which focuses on the future and how the organisation will get there.
  • Operational domain – which addresses the present and how to organise efforts to deliver organisational objectives.
  • Interpersonal domain – which concerns how to connect with stakeholders and bring them with you on the journey.

Each of these domains are underpinned by specific leadership tasks describing what leaders must do to create the conditions for success, which will either feed in a pure way to the domain, or bridge two domains. For example, ‘building and sustaining relationships’ is the core task within the ‘interpersonal domain’, whereas ‘teamworking’ feeds into both the ‘operational domain’ and ‘interpersonal domain’.

At the centre is ‘leading’, we view this as being able to understand when to dial up and down the deployment of each of the leadership tasks as and when required, similar to how a conductor guides an orchestra.

Proposition 2: Leaders are inherently incomplete

After assessing thousands of leaders across all sectors and over several decades, our conclusion is that it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to be equally effective in all three domains and across all leadership tasks.

We therefore searched for possible explanations as to why this may be and found research studies showing that personality might provide some insights. For example, those who are naturally pragmatic and structured will gravitate towards an operational leadership focus. The same personality characteristics likely mean that taking a strategic leadership focus requires greater effort and attention. In contrast those who are less conscientious and more conceptual and adaptive than most will be more suited to a strategic leadership focus.

Evidence to support this proposition comes from a study by Leinwand, Mainardi and Kleiner published in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) in 2015. In a survey of over 700 executives from a range of different organisations, they found that whilst only 16% of the leaders were rated as highly effective in either creating strategy or executing it (essentially the operational domain in our model), this drops to only 8% of leaders who were rated as good at both.

There is also very compelling evidence presented by Rath and Conchie in their 2009 book Strengths-based Leadership, who conclude that “the best leaders are not well-rounded”. They conducted a 30-year study based on 1.7 million sets of data on leaders and their teams. They found that the best leaders know and play to their strengths, and “surround themselves with the right people and build on each person’s strengths.”

A useful analogy can be made to the heptathlete, Jessica Ennis-Hill who won the Gold Medal at the Olympic games in London 2012. Whilst a world class runner and jumper, she was less capable in the throwing events. If she were to build her upper body to throw the javelin more powerfully, this would have been at the expense of her ability in the high jump which relies more on being flexible. Therefore, heptathletes need to train to be good enough at their weaker events and focus their efforts on excelling in their stronger events. Similarly, we find that seeking to develop ‘well-rounded’ leaders is likely to be a fruitless exercise.

Proposition 3: How personality and performance interact

We know that certain elements of a leader’s personality make it easier for them to perform some of the leadership tasks in the model and harder for them to enact others. Therefore, we recommend that leaders should focus their development where they’re likely to get most return on their effort. The way we help leaders to reveal this is by using aligned measures of performance and personality to reveal how they interact together to create different types of strength or limitation:

  • Natural strengths – are created when your skills work ‘with the grain’ of your personality so that they are easy to deploy and sustain.
  • Potential strengths – these are actually areas of lower performance, but personality is compatible with these tasks, so with some concerted effort this can be developed into a strength.
  • Fragile strengths – are created when skills have been learned by great effort and determination over long periods of time but which work counter to the leader’s personality.
  • Resistant limitations – the leader has neither learned the skills they need nor do they have a helpful set of personality characteristics to make the learning easy. Therefore, it may be unrealistic to expect that this can be turned into a strength overnight, so we encourage people to find ways to work around these where possible.

Proposition 4: How to create complete leadership from incomplete leaders

Our final proposition is that the way to create complete leadership is through building teams of individuals who, between them, cover all the bases, so one leader’s natural strengths address another leader’s resistant limitations. Rather than trying to create well-rounded leaders, we focus on helping leaders develop excellence in a more realistic range of tasks and to find ways to cover the other tasks they are less competent at or suited to. And this notion is central to the Primary Colours® approach to leadership – complete leadership comes from working with teams of leaders with complementary strengths and differences. It requires team members to share their strengths and limitations with each other, to actively find ways to harness each other’s capabilities and to build greater levels of interdependence and collaboration.

Edgecumbe Consulting Group is a leading UK-based leadership consultancy. We are positioned at the interface between leadership research and its application in organisations. Our proprietary model of leadership, the Primary Colours® Model, is taught at leading business schools in the UK. Contact us to find out more about methodology for assessing and developing leaders.