The Power of Counterintuitive Thinking in Leadership Development

By Bob Sherwin

Some things in life are counterintuitive. The Mpemba Effect is one of them. Writer Mike Williams observed in Science magazine that “One of water’s lesser know properties is that hot water freezes faster than cold water. It is not fully understood why, but the phenomenon, known as the Mpemba Effect, was originally discovered by Aristotle over 3,000 years ago.”

A more recently observed and widely recognized counterintuitive puzzle is what is known as The Monty Hall Paradox. It’s loosely based on the 1960s-70s daytime TV game show, “Let’s Make a Deal,” and is named after its longtime host, Monty Hall.

During the show a participant would be asked by Hall to pick one of three doors to open, and would be awarded the prize hidden behind the door selected. One of the doors concealed a prize of great value (like an expensive vacation), while behind the other two were prizes of low value (like a live goat).

But before opening the participant’s selected door, Hall would open up one of the other two doors, revealing a low value prize. The participant was then given the option to stay with the door originally selected, or switch to the other unopened door.

Standard thinking suggests that it doesn’t matter whether the participant switches doors. The common belief is that, with a car behind one of the remaining unopened doors and a goat behind the other, the chances of getting the car are 50/50 no matter which door is chosen.

Those participants who employed that thinking paid a price.

In fact, statistics show that it always made sense to switch doors. As Alex Stone described it in Discover magazine, “If you switched, the only way you could lose was to have originally picked the door with the prize behind it. But the odds of that were 1 in 3, while there was a two-thirds chance that the prize was behind one of the other two doors. So switching was the same as betting that the first guess was wrong — which it probably was.”

An ability to accept and embrace counterintuitive concepts like these is important to leaders because they face a similar paradox in their own careers. A commonly held belief is that the process of developing leaders must begin by finding and fixing their weaknesses. That belief is built on the underlying assumption that their performance is limited by their weakest competencies.

Because the level of the lowest competency sets the bar for any leader’s overall success, so the thinking goes, that competency needs to be improved and the weakness fixed. Great organizational effort (and often, pain) is undertaken in discovering and communicating these weaknesses to leaders. In turn, leaders are expected to work on these weaknesses to get them fixed.

Weaknesses Don’t Make Leaders Exceptional

Having leaders focus their development on their weaknesses is a traditional approach, widely accepted, but not very effective. This is because great leaders are differentiated by the existence of profound strengths, not the absence of weaknesses. Focusing on fixing weaknesses may elevate a poor leader up to average, but it never made any leader exceptional. Great leaders distinguish themselves by possessing and exhibiting significant strengths in areas that are important to their jobs. They don’t stand out because they’re perfect and have no weaknesses.

In fact, the commonly held belief that the existence of weaknesses will necessarily limit a leader’s job performance is a serious misperception that has taken many leaders down the wrong development path.

A quick way to observe the fallacy of that logic is to consider some of the world’s greatest leaders and take a quick inventory of their strengths and weaknesses. Whether they stood out in military, political, scientific, commercial or other roles, it’s easy to develop a list of the profound strengths that set these leaders apart. They delivered exceptional results because they brought exceptional and easy-to-spot capabilities in areas that really mattered.

However, it’s also usually well-known that they weren’t perfect (think Ulysses S. Grant or Steve Jobs). It’s likely that a list of weaknesses could be easily developed, too. It would be rare to find outstanding leaders who had none. But the key to these great leaders’ successes was their extraordinary strengths — ones so exceptional that the existence of some weaknesses didn’t hinder their overall effectiveness and achievements.

For these reasons the most effective development approach for most leaders is to build a few profound strengths that will help them stand out in competencies that matter. If successful, those they lead will focus on and appreciate their abilities and not their disabilities.

The path to this strengths-based approach starts with leaders selecting the right competencies to develop, and that requires some important insights in three areas. Identifying where these three areas overlap will help leaders make the right selections:

1. Their current competency strengths. Building on an already solid foundation is the quickest and most effective way to develop profound strengths. Open, honest and direct feedback (most often through a 360-degree survey of the leader’s manager, direct reports, peers and others) can help leaders understand where they stand and which competencies can most likely and quickly be developed to an exceptional level.

2. The competencies that most matter to the organization. The skills and behaviors critical for success to a supply-chain executive in an established global manufacturer may be very different than those important to the CFO of a startup technology firm. It’s important for leaders to develop profound strengths in competency areas that will have the greatest impact on their jobs and most matter to those they lead.

Building a capability in a less-relevant job area is likely to neither matter nor be noticed by others. Understanding what’s important to the organization is also efficiently done through a survey specifically designed for that purpose.

3. The competencies that most matter to them. Developing themselves and improving others’ perceptions of their leadership capabilities can be hard work. Leaders should consider which competencies are most important and interesting to them. Working on something they enjoy and consider essential to their own futures will feel more like a positive personal challenge than negative, weakness-centered drudgery.

The result is they’ll often find themselves working harder and more consistently on their development plans. Their own passions are an important element for leaders to consider when selecting competencies they want to build into profound strengths.

An Exception: When to Focus on Weaknesses

There is a situation where leaders should temporarily defer their focus on building strengths and instead focus on fixing a weakness — that’s when the weakness is both profound (and not merely a “rough edge”) and is a competency that’s critical to the leader’s job or career success. This type of weakness potentially represents a fatal flaw and it’s found in roughly one-quarter of the tens of thousands of leaders the author’s firm has assessed and trained.

Leaders can assess whether they have a fatal flaw by looking at the overlap of two measures. The first is the existence of strong negative feedback in a specific competency area. This is commonly reflected in a low 360 feedback score, but a leader may also learn about it as a result of informal negative feedback from colleagues, in more formal performance reviews or in other settings.

When this kind of negative feedback overlaps with the second measure — a competency assessed as critical in the leader’s current job — it could indicate a fatal flaw. In some situations a leader may receive strong negative feedback, but in a competency area not important in the position. It’s likely in these cases that the leader doesn’t have a fatal flaw, and focusing on fixing that weakness may have a limited impact on overall success.

The ultimate test of a possibly unhealthy fruit tree is to inspect the fruit it produces. A similar type of inspection can help a leader confirm the existence of a fatal flaw. The ultimate indicator of a fatal flaw is being passed over for promotions, failing to be considered for growth opportunities or failure in the current job. If these are shown, it’s likely there are one or more fatal flaws actively offsetting any positive impacts from the leader’s strengths.

Looking at the cases of two accounting executives can help illustrate the difference between a fatal flaw and a less serious weakness. In both cases the executives are exceptional, efficient accountants, but neither is seen as being a powerful, effective communicator. In one case, the executive leads a team responsible for efficiently producing standard accounting reports for internal use.

Is not being a great communicator a fatal flaw for this executive? Probably not — it’s unlikely to result in job failure. In the other case the executive is responsible for not only understanding the accounting reports, but also for communicating and positioning the financial results to the board of directors and external investment community. Not being a great communicator probably is a fatal flaw for this executive.

Like the Mpemba Effect and the Monty Hall Paradox, for many people the idea of building on strengths to develop leaders is counterintuitive. But as George Washington Carver once wrote, “When you can do the common things in life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world.”

The leadership corollary is that when leaders can do the important things in their jobs in an exceptional way, they will command the attention of those they lead and the rest of the organization. Now that’s not a paradox.

About the Author:

Bob Sherwin is chief operating officer of Zenger Folkman, a leadership development firm.  Reprinted from Chief Learning Officer

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