Thought Leader: Jack Zenger on Being a Great Leader

The following interview, conducted by Karen Elmhirst with Jack Zenger is a condensed version of’s live, one-hour online learning seminar, which was also broadcast on Voice America Internet Radio.

Jack Zenger is co-founder of the Extraordinary Performance Group, a broad scale provider of consulting, research, materials and technolody for leadership development. In 1977, Jack co-founded Zenger-Miller and he served as the President and CEO until 1991. Zenger-Miller went on to become Achieve Global, one of the largest providers of training solutions in the U.S. In 1994, Jack was inducted into the Human Resources Development Hall of Fame. He has published 45 articles and he has authored or co-authored seven books, including his latest book, The Extraordinary Leader: Turning Good Managers into Great Leaders.

Topic: What does it take to become a great leader?

KE: Jack, you state in your book, that it is only when leadership is perceived as extremely bad, or extremely good, that a real impact is made on business metrics like: employee turnover, morale, customer satisfaction, and profitability. Please tell us more about this concept, based on your research findings.

JZ: It’s obvious that bad leaders (the bottom 20%) produce bad results. Really great leaders (the top 20%) produce really great results. Good leaders produce better results than bad ones, however, there is very little difference in business outcome for leaders that rank anywhere in the middle of 60%. So, this relationship between business performance and leadership performance is not incremental. Leaders who are perceived as good (in the middle 60%) hold the organization back, especially if they have the opportunity to become great. One of the implications here is that we’ve been focusing on the bottom group rather than looking at the middle group, who can move from good to great and in doing so, makes significant impact on business success.

KE: How did you conduct your research for this book?

JZ: We compiled a data set of 200,000 360 evaluations on 20,000 individuals. We then contrasted the highest performing 10% to the lowest performing 10%. We identified the behaviours that best differentiated between the best and the worst performers. Then, we looked at the business performance metrics of certain organizations to match them against their leaders’ assessment ratings.

KE: Certainly these findings are in line with what we saw in Jim Collins’ book From Good to Great. I’d like to talk about these implications as we continue our conversation.

JZ: We were writing our book when Collin’s book came out, and we were pleased to see that we had come to many of the same conclusions.

KE: To begin to understand what it takes to be a great leader, you use the metaphor of a tent. Can you spend some time describing this tent concept to us?

JZ: If you take 100 people and ask them what leadership means, you’ll get at least 100 answers. The tent model was meant to help people visualize and understand what leadership is all about in a straightforward way. Our tent has 5 poles, each one representing a cluster of competencies. The middle pole of the tent is what we’ve called Character. It’s the whole issue of integrity, people doing what they say they will do. The four poles each represent another cluster of leadership competencies. They are: Personal Capability, Focusing on Results, Interpersonal Skills and Leading Change. Our research indicates that these really are the 5 major elements that come together to make extraordinary leaders. The fundamental message is this… if the tent represents the effectiveness of the leader and the size of the tent shows how effective the leader is… the metaphor would say that lengthening any one of the poles creates a larger tent space.

KE: Within these 5 clusters of competencies that represent your tent poles, you mention 16 individual leadership competencies. Jack, can your review those for us briefly.

JZ: There are 16 different competencies, and we group them as follows:


  • Displaying high integrity and honesty

Personal Competence:

  • Technical/professional expertise
  • Solving problems/analyzing issues
  • Innovation
  • Practicing self-development

Focus on Results:

  • Drive for Results
  • Establish stretch goals
  • Initiative

Interpersonal Skills:

  • Communicating powerfully & prolifically
  • Inspiring/motivating others
  • Building relationships
  • Developing others
  • Collaboration & teamwork

Leading Change: (for senior people in the organisation)

  • Developing strategic perspectives
  • Championing change
  • Connecting outside world – networking

KE: There are several points in the book in which you question conventional wisdom re: leadership development. Let’s take a look at some of these… Starting with 360 assessments, what’s wrong with the common approach?

JZ: The first thing people commonly do is look at their lowest scores. They feel that if they work on those things and bring those up to the Norm Score, or average, then they will be an effective leader. Our research argues that this is not the case. Generally, if you incrementally increase a low score, our research shows , it is not going to make any difference in this person’s perceived performance in the organization.

Focusing on average scores emphasizes mediocrity, rather than focusing on strengths and competencies that truly matter. For example, if we take the data on a leader who falls in the middle (good) range and compare it to the average; it looks like this person is doing well. If we however, compare those same scores to the top scores on leadership effectiveness (say, the 80th percentile), the message to this person changes. Now, we see that this person doesn’t stand out on anything. All of a sudden we see opportunity to take their 2 or 3 highest scores and reach even higher – to expand upon their strengths. The bottom line is that unless you have some compelling strengths, you are not going to succeed in the organization.

Finally, we see many organizations with 60 or more leadership competencies. With these large numbers, people aren’t focusing on what matters the most.

KE: What about this notion that the top leaders set the ceiling on leadership effectiveness – that leaders are only willing to be as effective as those, who in turn, lead them. What is this about?

JZ: It was a very surprising finding in our data. What we found was that we seldom saw any subordinate managers whose scores exceeded the person at the top. The conclusion we came to was that leaders cast a shadow on the organization. They set the ceiling. Often, the people who are challenged to keep improving are the people in the middle layers of the organization. Sometimes the senior people get complacent. They don’t believe that they need to do more to increase their own skills because of where they are. If they engaged in self-development and people around them saw them growing and developing, they would create an updraft that would pull the whole organization up with them. It’s a strong message to the senior people in the organization; they can’t stop engaging in leadership development if they want the next level of leaders to become more effective.

KE: Your book repeatedly demonstrates the need to focus on strengths versus improving weaknesses. Why is it important to focus on strengths?

JZ: If people do now posses any perceived strengths, that is, no competency that is rated above the eightieth percentile, we saw that on average, they would be in the bottom third of all of the managers in their organization. But, if their subordinates perceived them as having just one strength in any competency area, there was a dramatic leap in their perceived effectiveness – moving from the 34th percentile with no strengths to the 64th percentile with one strength. We have repeated this in large public agencies and in different parts of the world and the numbers may shift one or two percentage points, but not very much.

If there are more perceived strengths, the numbers continue to grow. At 3 strengths, leaders rank in the 84th percentile, and 4 strengths take them to the 89th percentile. After that it does not make much difference. The really powerful message here is to be a highly effective leader inside of an organization; you need is to be perceived a exceptional at 3 or 4 things, not 34 things. You don’t have to be good at everything to be perceived as an extraordinary leader.

KE: So, should we never focus on weaknesses?

JZ: It does make sense in some cases to work on weaknesses, especially when they are what we call ‘fatal flaws’. We define a fatal flaw as being a behaviour or lack of behaviour, which essentially erases all of the good things about the person. So, it is important to look at low 360 assessment scores to see if they fall into any of these 5 categories. Based on our findings, no leader appeared in the top 20th percentile that had the following assessment results:

1. Does not practice self-development, specifically, doesn’t learn for his/her mistakes.
2. Does not have good interpersonal skills, resistant to new or different ideas.
3. Does not take accountability
4. Does not seem to focus on results
5. Does not take initiative.

If a person possess one of these five, then they really need to work on that because no matter what else they do, they are not going to get beyond that.

KE: Jack, one unique discovery in your research was regarding the linkage of competencies and this idea that they really don’t operate in isolation. In your book, you refer to them as ‘competency companions.’ What are they?

JZ: Competencies do not operate in isolation; they are in fact, intertwined. What we found is that when we looked at any one of the 16 differentiating competencies, there were 4 or 5 other competencies. Why are they related? We don’t know. It may be perceptual, in that if you’re perceived as great at something, people around you make assumptions about you being great at other things too. It may be a cross-training effect. Maybe getting good at one thing increases aspirations… maybe getting good at one thing increases confidence. We don’t know the reasons these things are related, but we know that they are related.

KE: Let’s talk ROI. A lot of companies say that measurement of leadership development efforts is difficult to do and requires a long-term look. What is your perspective on measurement?

JZ: I have a much shorter-term focus on things. If you don’t see a change in people’s behaviours within a six-month to one year’s time frame, the likelihood of the behaviour ever changing is pretty much nil. We need to be giving serious attention to evaluation and measurement and we’ve got to stop copping out by saying that it can’t be measured except in the long run.

KE: What are some things our audience can take away and use immediately to improve their leadership development efforts?

JZ: Set your sights on being great. Don’t compare yourself with the ‘average’. Build strengths from the list of differentiating competencies. Fix any fatal flaws. Balance your ‘drive for results’ with your ‘interpersonal skills’. Create a feedback-rich environment that may include 360-degree feedback, along with coaching, and after action reviews. Use non-linear developments paths for strengths you’ve chosen to develop and associate with great leaders and carefully observe what they do.

For a full report on this research and it’s implications, we highly recommend you buy the book, The Extraordinary Leader: Turning Good Managers into Great Leaders.

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