These 3 questions will help unlock your leadership abilities

Conventional wisdom says leaders should focus on their weaknesses. But best-selling author and world renowned leadership expert Joe Folkman says to go from good to great, leaders should instead focus on their strengths.

Thanks to a partnership with Arcadia Consulting, I recently had the chance to speak to Joe about what makes a great leader. And perhaps, more importantly, how it is within us all to develop our leadership potential to go from good to great.

According to Joe, we need to ask ourselves three simple questions on our leadership journey.

RELATED: Why great leaders execute with speed

Question 1: Do I have a “fatal flaw”?

According to Joe’s extensive research, 25 per cent of leaders have something we call a “fatal flaw” — this means a real deficit in your ability.

Joe makes a point to differentiate between a “fatal flaw” and a weakness.

Common examples include lack of integrity or honesty, lack of initiative or poor interpersonal relationships. Another example of a fatal flaw is when they are job-specific. For example, as an editor, if your core competency is the ability to write well and you can't, then that's a fatal flaw. Same goes for technical expertise when you are a coder or engineer. But for 75 per cent of leaders, they don't have fatal flaws but rather weaknesses.

If you have a “fatal flaw”, then working on that flaw is your first pre-requisite before moving on to the next stage of your leadership journey. Joe also says that, contrary to popular belief, bad leaders can change their spots. Based on his research of 4,000 leaders, 61 per cent of leaders moved from the 18th percentile to 48th percentile of the effective leadership scale within 18 months, simply by addressing their fatal flaws — we're not talking about turning flaws into strengths, but rather acknowledging they have a fatal flaw and then working on it so they move out of the danger zone.

Question 2: What are my strengths? 

“What's the difference between a great leader and an average leader?”

According to Joe, the difference is that great leaders did a few things really well. It wasn't the absence of weakness that made them great, it was the presence of a few key strengths. Steve Jobs, Bill Clinton, Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan... all were far from perfect but they were just really good at a few things.

So what are these few things? According to Joe, the six fundamental “leadership levers” (LLs) of an effective leader are:

  • Innovation: encouraging new ideas and solutions through creative approaches
  • Relationships: developing strong relationships built on trust, respect and consideration
  • Acumen: acquiring knowledge and skills to be at the cutting edge of business practices
  • Inspiration: motivating others to perform at their highest potential
  • Strategic vision: communicating a clear vision to accomplish key objectives
  • Execution: consistently deliver extraordinary results

Here's what Joe's research showed: The average effectiveness of leaders with no strengths was at the 34th percentile (strength defined as a competency at the 90th percentile). If a leader did ONE of the LLs well, his or her average effectiveness as a leader jumped from the 34th to 64th percentile, almost double their effectiveness. If a leader did THREE LLs well,  average effectiveness jumped to the 81st percentile. In other words, you move into the top 20 percent of leaders if you are very competent in just three of the six LLs.

Crucially, Joe's research also showed that when we give people feedback and say “focus on your weaknesses”, the whole process was so negative and the motivation to improve was much lower, it was like, “Let's show you why you're such a loser”. That's not fun. What if instead, we said, “Okay, if you have a fatal flaw, then fix it. But if not, figure out what you can be great at. That just sends an entirely different message to people”.

So back to you: which three of the above leadership levers could you focus on and turn into strengths?

Question 3: Who can I hire to complement my weaknesses?

The father of modern advertising, David Ogilvy, famously said, “If you always hire people who are smaller than you are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. If, on the other hand, you always hire people who are bigger than you are, we shall become a company of giants”.

Great leaders are incredibly self-aware. They know their gaps and weaknesses and aren't afraid to hire people that complement their weaknesses.

As Joe says, “What makes an organisation work really well is when we get people that like very different things and then it brings all those talents to bear”. That's when the company or team becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

Back to you: What are your weaknesses, and who do you need in your team to fill those gaps?

RELATED: 7 essential questions every hiring manager should ask

Joe Folkman is co-founder and president of Zenger Folkman. With more than 30 years of experience, he is a respected authority on individual and organisational change, an acclaimed keynote speaker and co-author of best-seller of “The Extraordinary Leader: Turning Good Managers into Great Leaders”. 

On Oct 17, Michael Page Human Resources and Arcadia Consulting hosted Joe for a one-day leadership workshop in Hong Kong entitled, “The Key to Organisational Agility: Leadership Speed”. If you would like to discuss future collaborations, please contact us


To grow from a good to great leader, ask yourself these three simple questions: 

Question 1: Do I have a “fatal flaw”?

Question 2: What are my strengths? 

Question 3: Who can I hire to complement my weaknesses?

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