Bad Leaders Can Change Their Spots
We have many ways to describe the common belief that a person's behavior is relatively fixed: "A leopard can't change his spots." "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." You could probably add a few more old saws yourself. This view, we've found, seems especially prevalent in relation to senior leaders with noticeable weakness, like an uncontrollable temper or a marked tendency to be rude or unreasonably demanding.
John H. Sununu, former governor or New Hampshire and later White House chief of staff to George H. W. Bush, had a reputation for being extremely unpleasant to work with. This finally prompted him to ask an aide, "Why do people take such an instant dislike to me?" After a brief hesitation, the aide replied, "Oh, I'm not sure sir, but I guess it just saves them a lot of time."
Intuitively, this notion makes so much sense. Surely the combination of age, power, success, inadvertent and deliberate moves to avoid feedback, and years of practicing their vices with impunity leaves little incentive for senior leaders to change.
And yet we contend that they can — and they do. Here's why:
We looked at data from 545 relatively senior executives who participated in recent leadership development programs in three different organizations — a large bank, a large high-tech communications company, and an Ivy League university (not affiliated with this organization). Through 360 assessments, they were judged on how skilled they were in the 16 attributes we've found through our research to be most essential to leadership effectiveness (fundamental leadership abilities like inspiring others, communicating effectively, driving for success, and the like).
Sadly, in that group we identified 96 unfortunates (18%) who were judged worse than 90% of their peers in their ability to perform one or more of these critical leadership skills. A score that low on even a single attribute can derail a career.
And so we counsel these individuals to fix their fatal flaws before they focus, as the rest of the group would do, on identifying their particular strengths and learning how to make them (and themselves) even more remarkable.
Those who believe that leopards, particularly senior management leopards, can't change their spots may be surprised to find that 71 of those 96 leaders were able to improve those flaws enough show a statistically significant improvement in their overall leadership effectiveness on their subsequent 360 evaluations. That is, roughly 75% of these leaders were able to change their behavior enough that their colleagues, subordinates, direct reports, and bosses (who had judged them so harshly before) could readily see improvement.
Furthermore, the changes weren't small. In 18 months to two years, these people hadn't just managed to drag themselves up from the bottom 10% to the bottom 20%. They move up 33 points. That propelled them from the bottom to being above average. If they choose to continue their development efforts, there's every reason to believe that many will continue to improve even more.
As with Governor Sununu, the flaws most commonly tripping up our at-risk leaders were related to failures in establishing interpersonal relationships. Far less frequent were fatal flaws involved in leading change initiatives, driving for results, and — we're happy to report — character. That might explain how they'd managed to get as far as they had. But past a certain point, individual ambition and results aren't enough. As they climb higher in an organization and the ability to motivate others becomes far more important, poor interpersonal skills, indifference to other people's development, and a belief that they no longer need to improve themselves come to haunt these less effective leaders the most.
The exceptionally good news, our data show, is that far more often than not, those who take these issues seriously can succeed in shedding bad habits to become markedly better leaders. New spots, anyone?