Let’s Go to the Data: What Really Works in Leadership?
Go into your neighborhood bookstore and you will find countless titles on leadership.
(350,000+ on Amazon.com.) Competency models can contain dozens of things a leader is
expected to do, and we all relate to ideas of what effective leadership is really all about
from our own experience – good and bad.
It can be confusing, and overwhelming.
Given this, an interesting question is: What does the empirical, data-driven work show us
about truly effective leadership? What do we know from real research?
Fortunately, there is exhaustive research in the books cited below that takes us beyond
intuitive, personal ideas about leadership to which we can look to solidly ground thinking
and action. The following mine data in particularly powerful ways:
- The Extraordinary Leader, by Joseph Folkman and John Zenger
- Good to Great, by Jim Collins
- The Leadership Challenge, by James Kouzes and Barry Posner
Let’s summarize each, and then look at some connecting points:
The Extraordinary Leader
Joseph Folkman and John Zenger start out in The Extraordinary Leader with a simple
question: What differentiates the best- and worst-performing leaders, as judged by the
results of 360-degree assessments? They studied more than 200,000 such assessments on
20,000 leaders. They conclude with a metaphor of a tent, with the “long pole” in the
middle representing character. The other keys to leadership effectiveness are
interpersonal skills, focus on results, personal capability, and leading organizational
Good to Great
Jim Collins takes a completely different approach in Good to Great. Rather than relying
on internal perceptions of leadership effectiveness, he takes the analysis outside. He and
his small army of researchers spent 15,000 hours carefully evaluating Fortune 500
companies that had posted significantly better-than-peer results over a sustained period of
time. They simply looked for who had been doing the best, the longest.
Collins took a deliberately agnostic view of everything, holding no theories or ideas
about what differentiated these companies. Instead, he backed up from the outstanding
results to find out what was going on inside the “black box” that accounted for the
His first finding is that these companies had what he calls Level 5 leadership in all cases.
A Level 5 leader moves beyond individual effectiveness, beyond being a good team
player, and beyond being a competent manager or leader into the rarified air of building
enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional
The enduring greatness Collins writes about relates to the organization rather than from
the leader. This view connects to the personal humility he identifies next: the notion that
the leader is not an ego-propelled, publicity-seeking figure. Collins’ leaders stand in stark
contrast to some leader personalities we see today. He even notes that Level 5 leadership
is at odds with the personal ambition that drives many people into positions of leadership.
Collins’ work makes it ultimately practical for any leader to ask himself or herself: Is this
about me, or the organization?
Daniel Goleman reviewed huge databases of performance in coming to his model of
emotional intelligence, which consists of self-awareness, self-regulation, social
awareness and relationship management.
What is most striking about Goleman’s work is his contention, buttressed
again and again by empirical data, that emotional intelligence is a far better predictor of
success in performance, and particularly leadership, than technical competence. Further,
Goleman’s research consistently shows that emotional intelligence matters more and
more the higher up one goes in a leadership position.
The Leadership Challenge
Kouzes and Posner studied tens of thousands of leaders, using a proprietary
instrument called the Leadership Practices Inventory, as well as interviews and
observations. They identified five fundamental attributes of leadership: challenging the
process, inspiring a shared vision, enabling others to act, modeling the way, and
encouraging the heart.
Clearly, this research shows that leadership starts with deeply internal characteristics of
leaders, including character, humility and self-awareness.
From there, and in a more extraverted, behavioral sense, the keys appear to be balancing
unquestioned commitment to the work and organization’s goals with an interest and focus
on the people doing that work. It’s a both/and, rather than an either/or.
The goal focus calls in Collins’ professional will, Zenger and Folkman’s thinking about
results, and the emphasis by Kouzes and Posner on the shared vision that creates the
desire for those results. The need to change in order to meet those goals is underlined in
Kouzes and Posner’s work.
The focus on people is highlighted in Goleman’s work, including his research on self-
regulation, social awareness and relationship management. The interpersonal skills cited
by Zenger and Folkman, and the attribute of encouraging the heart are all evidence of the
people side of leadership.
The net seems to be a combination of caring about something to accomplish, and caring
about the people who are going to do that.
It’s a “both/and,” rather than an “either/or.”