The Difference Between Great and Bad Leaders is Smaller than I Thought

Ryan Gottfredson

by Ryan Gottfredson

Share this post

Enjoying this article? Subscribe and get weekly tips on how to improve your mindset.

business men balance on seesaw

I want to share one of my biggest learnings that I have had over the last several months of doing deep vertical development work with a variety of executive teams.

This work has involved doing 360’s and a coaching exercise that facilitates a deep introspective dive designed to help people uncover their subconscious fears, mental blocks, and hindering mindsets.

Across all of this effort, what I have learned is that the difference between great and bad leaders is smaller than I thought.

Authors note: I am a big believer that there is a huge difference between being and doing. In what follows, my language will involve more doing language, but as I will share at the end of the article, what is most important is the being behind any of the doings.

Let Me Explain

Findings from 360’s

When I do 360’s, I have subordinates and peers evaluate their leaders across a variety of metrics that include the degree to which the leaders:

  • Manage stress well
  • Are ‘shades of grey’ thinkers
  • Are self-aware
  • Are OK being vulnerable
  • Are future-focused

Before I started doing 360’s, I expected that great leaders would receive high scores (e.g., 5.0 on a 5-point scale, while bad leaders would receive bad scores (e.g., 2 on a 5-point scale).

But, what I have found is that while I was accurate on the top-end (great leaders generally do score close to a 5.0), I have been shocked to find that bad leaders score around a 4.0, depending on the item being evaluated.

Since these items are scored on a 5-point scale ranging from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (5), this means that followers/peers generally “strongly agree” that great leaders excel in these areas. But, it also means that followers/peers generally “agree” that bad leaders excel in these areas.

Stated differently, the difference between great and bad leaders is smaller than I thought.

Coaching Calls

When I do coaching calls, particularly after the 360’s, I have observed that leaders struggle to accurately assess how effectively they operate as leaders.

Some things that I commonly look for when I am getting to know a leader include:

  • How emotionally intelligent they are
  • How intentional they are
  • How open-minded they are

I have only met leaders who believe that they are emotionally intelligent, intentional, and open-minded. But, what I have observed is that there is variance across the leaders that I coach. And, it is fairly easy for me to gauge if someone is lower vs higher in these different areas.

This has led me to wonder: Why is it that one leader who is low in ___________________ and another leader who is high in ___________________ both believe that they possess ___________________. (Fill in the blanks with emotional intelligence, intentionality, or open-mindedness.)

Here is what I have learned: The reality is that even leaders who are low in _______________ do demonstrate that ability at times. Because they know that they do demonstrate that ability at times, they perceive that they possess that ability.

So, the question becomes more about frequency of demonstrating those abilities.

For example, and these are rough estimates, what I have observed is that:

  • Great leaders demonstrate emotional intelligence/intentionality/open-mindedness 90% of the time, while bad leaders demonstrate emotional intelligence/intentionality/open-mindedness 60% of the time.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the difference between these percentages is meaningful and substantial. But, in the minds of the “bad leaders,” they feel they have a lot of evidence that they are emotionally intelligent, intentional, and open-minded.

This perception, that because they demonstrate certain abilities even a majority of the time, is a major factor that is holding them back from becoming great.

Author’s Note: Becoming a more effective leader is not about simply doing things more. I believe that if we want to authentically behave more effectively a higher percentage of the time, we have got to focus primarily on elevating our BEING. When we are a certain way, we will operate in a certain way.

At the Group Level

When I do a workshop with executive teams or groups of leaders, I am generally presenting on a topic and inviting them to (1) evaluate how they are currently doing related to that topic, and (2) step up in that area. The topics generally involve mindsets (growth, open, promotion, and/or outward), emotional intelligence, leading with context, etc.

Across these workshops, I generally get three different responses:

  • They justify all of the reasons they can’t operate in the manner that I have recommended
  • They resist or fail to internalize the messaging, believing that they are already great at the topic
  • They try to soak up the information as a way to refine and improve

Do you have any guesses on where bad, good, and great groups fall across these responses?

business men balance on seesaw

My observation is that:

  • Groups that are bad with the topic generally justify why they can’t do better
  • Groups that are good (but not great) with the topic resist the messaging because they believe they are already great at the topic (maybe they demonstrate it 75% of the time, instead of the great groups who demonstrate it 90% of the time)
  • Groups that are already great are the ones who do the best at soaking up the information as a way to improve

Time for Introspection

After reading this, ask yourself:

  • Do you possess accurate self-awareness of your vertical altitude, the quality of your mindsets (growth, open, promotion, and outward), emotional intelligence, and intentionality (among other characteristics)?
  • Are you open to the idea that just because you generally do a good job at something (e.g., emotional intelligence, growth mindset) you may not be great at it, and that difference can make a world of difference?
  • When you attend a leadership development workshop, are you more inclined to justify, resist, or soak up the information?

If you would like to your leaders to receive 360-degree feedback as a way to deepen their self-awareness and elevate in their vertical altitude and mindsets, let’s connect and see if we can make something happen.

Subscribe for the latest posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *