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Bad leaders can change their spots

We have many ways of expressing the idea that a person’s behavior is fixed: “A leopard can’t change his spots,’’ we say. Or “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’’ You could probably add a few more yourself. We’ve found this view to be especially common when people describe senior leaders with noticeable weaknesses, such as an uncontrollable temper. This is understandable. Surely, the combination of age, power, success and years of practicing their vices with impunity leaves little incentive for leaders to change.

And yet we contend that they can—and they do. Here’s why: We looked at data from 545 relatively senior executives who participated in recent leadership-development programs in three different organizations—a large bank, a large high-tech communications company and an Ivy League university. Through 360 assessments, they were judged on how skilled they were in the 16 attributes we’ve found through our research to be most essential in effective leadership (including inspiring others and communicating effectively).

In that group we identified 96 executives (18 percent) who were judged worse than 90 percent of their peers in their ability to perform one or more of these critical leadership skills. A score that low on even a single attribute can derail a career.

We counseled these individuals to fix their fatal flaws before they focused on identifying and improving their strengths.

Those who believe that leopards can’t change their spots may be surprised to find that 71 of those 96 leaders were able to improve their flaws enough to show a statistically significant rise in their overall leadership effectiveness on subsequent 360 evaluations. That is, roughly 75 percent of these leaders were able to change their behavior enough that their colleagues could readily see improvement.

The flaws that most often tripped up our at-risk leaders were related to failures in establishing interpersonal relationships. Past a certain point, individual ambition and results aren’t enough. As executives climb the organizational ladder and their ability to motivate others becomes more important, poor interpersonal skills and a belief that they no longer need to improve themselves come to haunt the less-effective leaders.

The good news, however, is that far more often than not, those who take these issues seriously can succeed in shedding bad habits to become markedly better leaders.

Jack Zenger is the CEO and Joseph Folkman is the president of Zenger Folkman, a leadership-development consultancy. They are co-authors of How to Be Exceptional: Drive Leadership Success by Magnifying Your Strengths.

 

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