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Do you know your strengths as a leader? What about your flaws?

Most leaders feel they have a good sense of both.

But consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman say 360-degree surveys show that executives with very low scores in one or more areas are often completely oblivious to their fatal flaws. And the reality is that 30 per cent of executives have such low scores.

This goes beyond weaknesses. Everyone has weaknesses, the consultants note, but after administering assessments to thousands of leaders, they found that most of the time mild weaknesses don’t affect a person’s overall effectiveness. Fatal flaws are extreme weaknesses that can have a dramatic negative effect, hampering your contribution to the organization and career progress. “Everyone else can see this clearly, but the person with the fatal flaw almost never does. And here, that blindness has a steep cost,” they write in Harvard Business Review.

There’s a one-in-three chance this is about you. Those are worrisome odds.

To help, the consultants suggest finding a “truth teller.” Another course might be to look at common managerial flaws and see if they might be a sore point for you as well. Here are nine to start with, from a Harris Interact online poll that came up with the top nine complaints by employees about their leaders:

  • Not recognizing employee achievements, cited by 63 per cent
  • Not giving clear directions, 57 per cent
  • Not having time to meet with employees, 52 per cent
  • Refusing to talk to subordinates, 51 per cent
  • Taking credit for others’ ideas, 47 per cent
  • Not offering constructive criticism, 39 per cent
  • Not knowing employees’ names, 36 per cent
  • Refusing to talk to people on the phone or in person, 34 per cent
  • Not asking about employees’ lives outside work, 23 per cent

It’s a stunning list. Not knowing employees’ names? Refusing to talk to people? Interact suggests it’s about emotional intelligence, but it seems even more basic than that – inept communication (or just overall ineptness). How did these people become managers? Are there simple transgressions like that which, in a rush, you commit?

I’ve just been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s fascinating book, The Bully Pulpit, a joint biography of Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and some of the muckraking journalists of their era. Taft was an extraordinarily genial man; people seemed to always remark on his likeability, from an early age, and always classified him as more convivial than anybody else. When he succeeded Roosevelt as president, however, he messed up in naming his cabinet, unable – presumably because of that genial approach – to tell people their fate, notably holdovers from the Roosevelt cabinet.

We think of leaders’ ham-handedness with others as coming from arrogance and personal ego or their very driven nature. But Taft, whose geniality suggests high emotional intelligence, flopped at handling difficult conversations. That genial attitude, of course, can lead to ducking such conversations, but also might lead to a passive-aggressive approach, avoiding tough conversations or, in frustration, taking too strong a voice in them, particularly under pressure from superiors. That may help to explain how some managerial ineptness occurs: out of a desire to be everyone’s friend, rather than to lord power over others.

Scott Gregory, CEO of Hogan Assessment Systems, says in Harvard Business Review that the key derailment characteristics of bad managers are well documented and fall into three broad categories of behaviour:

  • Moving-away behaviors, which create distance from others through hyper-emotionality, diminished communication, and skepticism, which erodes trust;
  • Moving-against behaviors, in which the manager overpowers and manipulates other people while aggrandizing himself or herself;
  • Moving-toward behaviors, which includes being ingratiating, overly conforming, and reluctant to take chances or stand up for one’s team.

He says the most common type of incompetent leader – and we may see it reflected in the nine complaints chronicled by Harris Interact – is the absentee leader. “Absentee leaders are people in leadership roles who are psychologically absent from them. They were promoted into management and enjoy the privileges and rewards of a leadership role, but avoid meaningful involvement with their teams.”

Research shows that being ignored by one’s boss is more alienating than being treated poorly, he notes. But these folks continue to manage because they don’t overtly create waves, so their bosses focus on more egregious managerial behaviour.

You may know people who fit this pattern. But that’s not my point. Do you fit that pattern, and possibly have a blind spot that allows you to ignore this fatal flaw?


  • The common advice is to work on our weaknesses or flaws and eliminate them. Another avenue might be to partner with somebody who can compensate, whose strengths complement your weaknesses and vice-versa. If you manage others, perhaps think about that when it comes to promotions and assignments.
  • Here’s a subtle blind spot to which trainer David Mattson urges you to be alert: Do you create learned helplessness by trying to solve every issue raised by your staff?
  • Look in the mirror, not out the window, when apportioning blame for poor performance, advises Good to Great author Jim Collins.

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