The Workplace

How to spot your 'fatal flaw' as a leader—before it's too late

Editor's note: This popular story was republished on Feb. 21, 2020.

Our take: Learn the four ways your organization can support leaders in identifying their "fatal flaws"

Executives typically know their greatest strengths, but they may not be so savvy when it comes to identifying their greatest weaknesses, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman write for the Harvard Business Review.

Leaders don't know their weaknesses

"Everyone has weaknesses," Zenger and Folkman—CEO and president, respectively, of Zenger/Folkman, a leadership development consultancy—write, and "mild" ones typically don't "impact a person's overall effectiveness." Their research has found that leaders who score in the bottom 10% on a key skill will be ranked in the bottom-fifth overall, regardless of their strengths. "Bottom line, leaders don't need to be extremely good at everything," Zenger and Folkman write, "but they generally cannot be totally void in one area and still succeed."

However, about 30% of the leaders the pair has studied have "at least one fatal flaw." Zenger and Folkman explain, "These are weaknesses that are so extreme that they can have a dramatic negative effect on a leader, seriously hampering their contribution to the organization and their career progress." When it comes to effects of these fatal flaws, "blindness has a steep cost," Zenger and Folkman write.

Why weaknesses can be hard to spot

But for many executives, Zenger and Folkman write it can be hard to "spot … fatal flaws" because they're often "'sins of omission.'"

While "[s]trengths are seen as a direct outcome of some specific behavior exhibited by the leader," such as "happy clients," fatal flaws are often "a result of inaction, of the leader not doing something," Zenger and Folkman write. "It's a deal that never happens, or a project that doesn't exist," Zenger and Folkman explain. They add, "These leaders are simply not making things happen."

As such, Zenger and Folkman write that leaders typically are surprised when they learn their fatal flaws. When leaders see low scores on certain leadership traits, they might say, "But I've done nothing to deserve these ratings,'" Zenger and Folkman write. By contrast, their colleagues may think, "'You deserve these ratings because you've done nothing.'"

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2 ways to increase self-awareness

Zenger and Folkman recommend two ways leaders—and others—can increase self-awareness.

First, find a "truth teller" who will provide you with honest feedback, Zenger and Folkman advise. Colleagues who notice your weakness should be found and encouraged to speak, Zenger and Folkman write. However it's important to be explicit that you are seeking honest information. If the truth teller seems overly cautious at first, Zenger and Folkman write that you should "encourage them to open up by being proactively receptive."

If you can't find a truth teller, then Zenger and Folkman recommend getting outside help. If your company doesn't offer coaching or 360-degree feedback, it might be a good idea to hire a coach or therapist. "This person may be able to help you gain a better understanding of your weaknesses and find ways to remedy them," they write (Zenger/Folkman, Harvard Business Review, 2/21).

Advisory Board's take

Craig Pirner, Managing Director, Talent Development

The Harvard Business Review article meaningfully distinguishes a "fatal flaw" from a mere weakness. Such fatal flaws are often "blind spots," or traits that are hard to see in ourselves—and when unaddressed, they can derail leaders who otherwise seemed destined for success.

Advisory Board's Talent Development team frequently works with "high-potential" leaders—i.e., those likely to ascend to the executive suite. In that work, we see that "fatal flaws" typically are not addressed through traditional feedback mechanisms like performance reviews. This is often because these traits are difficult to tangibly define and discuss. This is particularly true for the "fatal flaws" of omission: It's harder to outline development objectives around things that people do not do.

The most common "fatal flaws" we see are:

  • being overly ambitious;
  • displaying insensitivity to others; 
  • lacking integrity;
  • not accepting responsibility;
  • pushing the limits of tolerance;
  • lacking trust in others;
  • rushing to judgement;
  • failing to consider multiple perspectives; and
  • disrespecting the customer base.

In many cases, flaws of this nature don't hold high performers back early in their careers. Rather, they become more evident (and more "fatal") as careers advance to levels where success depends on not just on personal performance, but also on one's ability to relate to others, exercise influence, and lead change. Consequently, leaders are often unaware they have these flaws until it's too late to fix them.

How can we avoid this outcome? Recognizing blind spots typically requires initial feedback from others, then support as the individual processes the feedback and commits to addressing it. 

Based on our work, we have four suggestions for how to root out and address blind spots:

  1. Define a list of "key derailers" for your organization: things known to negatively affect a leader's performance, especially at more senior levels, that are fixable if caught and addressed early. These traits are likely to be universal across organizations—look at the things the Harvard Business Review article mentions, plus our list above—but they may also include some traits particular to your culture.

  2. Provide your high-potential talent with mentors, and equip those mentors to have "make or break" conversations that spell out the flaws that might inhibit future success. Mentors can help leaders see their blind spots by articulating how the flaws are damaging the leaders' goals and relationships and providing resources to help successfully address the derailing behaviors.

  3. Invest in 360-degree assessments, especially for your high-potential talent. These assessments, which offer feedback from direct reports, colleagues, and senior leaders, are helpful in providing opportunities for colleagues to offer deliberately developmental feedback that may arise in performance reviews. However, it's critical that 360 assessments are delivered and debriefed in a supportive, development-oriented environment.

  4. In leadership development programs at all levels, aim to help your managers and leaders cultivate self-awareness. The earlier that leaders develop consciousness around their feelings, motivations, and decisions—and empathy for how they affect others—the more likely it is that they'll be willing and able to receive feedback that helps them address flaws before they become "fatal."

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