Is your leadership style spiky?

Written by
Patricia Hind

16 Feb 2016

16 Feb 2016 • by Patricia Hind

What should leaders be good at?

From having a vision and setting direction through to developing people and ensuring their work is meaningful – the term ‘leadership’ encompasses it all. However, we do know that leaders have to be good at making things happen, through other people – these seem to be the two central ideas. When developing leaders to deliver against these fundamentals the received wisdom is that, as a starting point,  successful leaders need to have a good measure of self – awareness and that they need to be able to develop effective relationships in their teams. This article will explain exactly why these are truly critical issues for business success.

These two pillars of effective leadership – the need to be able to develop and maintain effective working relationships in teams and having real self - awareness are not dissociated. In fact they are very closely linked. Self – awareness usually comes from a personal reflection of our behaviour, and the impact it has on others. This ‘other’ focus should be more than simply a warm and fuzzy team sense of belonging and contributing to a group, but a sharp awareness of the value that difference and diversity can bring to a team. It sounds trite, but let’s be explicit here, to value difference means we are not all the same, some people are better than other people at certain things, and thus by definition, some people are worse at some things. The impact a leader has on others is obviously different for different people. Yet this truth is often ignored in leadership development.

Leaders can't be good at everything

Often, in executive education interventions there is a common misconception that CEO’s and senior managers should be pretty good at everything, and indeed some expect themselves to be so. So programmes and coaching sessions are often designed to ‘fault fix’ and to offer remedial help to fill in the gaps, bringing the leader up to a standard level of competence right across the board. However, a diversity perspective argues that not only can they not be good at everything, but indeed, they should not try to be. Trying to be good at everything wastes effort and takes the focus from the really important objective of developing strengths into excellence.

There is clear evidence to support this view. Research conducted by McKinsey and Egon Zehnder in 2011 identified eight key leadership competencies which were significantly correlated with growing business value. The research combined McKinseys detailed business information  on the growth of more than 700 companies with Egon Zhenders’ international database of performance appraisals of more than 100,000 senior executives. The project examined in detail the relationship between leadership competencies and revenue growth, dividing the companies into those that were in the highest percentile for revenue growth, and those that were in the lower percentile. 

The study identified 8 key leadership competencies, clustered into 3 themes, all correlated with growth. Table One shows the themes, the competencies and their ranked importance when it comes to business growth.

Table one

Competence Cluster


Ranking of importance for growth

Thought Leadership

Market Insight


Strategic Orientation


People and Organisational Leadership

Change Leadership


Developing Organisational Capability


Team Leadership


Collaboration and Influencing


Business Leadership

Customer Impact


Results Orientation


The headline finding was not a surprise – leadership competencies are critical to growth.  However, the research went on to highlight that actually, most companies simply don’t have enough high quality executives. Overall, only 1% of executives achieved an average competency of 6/7 or 7/7 on the eight competencies and only 10% had an average score of 5/7. The implication of this result is that high scoring all – round leaders are few and far between on senior management teams. However, excellence in one competency was much more frequent, so specialist expertise was quite common.
But, for every competency reviewed, executives from companies in the top quartile of revenue growth scored higher than those in the bottom quartile – so these qualities matter!

Leaders develop areas of focus

What is really interesting is that the leaders of the companies in the top quartile for growth did not display a flat profile of strengths across all the competences. Each of them were found to excel at only one, two, or maybe three. The term ‘spiky leadership’ was coined to explain that the leaders most likely to drive growth are those who have real ‘spikes’ of excellence on some of those key competencies, even if they are much less strong in the others.

Now, here’s where the importance of self-awareness and good team relationships come into very clear focus. Business growth seems to rely on all eight competencies, so if leaders are rarely able to offer excellence in all of them, ‘spiky’ leaders, with strength in particular areas,  must be capable of  building up, and working within, a great  team made up of other leaders with different ‘spikes’. Obviously, it is great to have leaders who are outstanding in some areas, but it is clearly not great to have a senior leadership team made up entirely of people who are good in the same area. Yet many organisations recruit leaders who are ‘one of us’, or who can ‘hit the ground running’ - this often means hiring individuals who are similar to existing team members. 

In order to be comfortable relying on the expertise of others, a good deal of  real and honest self  - awareness is needed,  acknowledging and accepting personal ‘gaps’ of capability. This self-awareness, combined with the determination to ‘get things done’ reinforces the need to have great, but different, people in the senior leadership team. Leaders must therefore develop the confidence to hire other strong people without feeling threatened. To deliver growth, spiky leaders must build a circle around them of other people who are at least as good as them, but in other areas. This leveraging of disparate skills requires leaders to bring an extraordinary degree of honesty and openness to their self – awareness.  It also gives real ‘legs’ to the old adage that team working is a ‘good thing’. It seems it is  not  just a ’nice - to – have’ for businesses pursuing growth, but a diverse and complementary senior leadership team is absolutely critical for business success.