Study Says Even Bad Leaders Can Change

Salt Lake City — March 19

When it comes to behavior, our society holds a pessimistic view of person’s ability to truly change. Senior leaders, who have been doing their work a certain way for decades, are often considered hopeless when it comes to development. This belief is described in the often-quoted phrases “A leopard can’t change his spots,” and “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” However, Zenger Folkman’s 360 degree analysis on some of the worst leaders revealed that even fatal flaws in senior leaders can be improved.

The study was with 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. They were judged on how skilled they were in the 16 attributes Zenger Folkman has found to be most essential to leadership effectiveness. Within that group, 96 leaders were only at the 10th percentile (or below) of effectiveness in one or more of these skills.

In a recent Harvard Business Review blog, Jack Zenger said, “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 percent 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.”

In a short amount of time — 18 months to two years — this group of leaders improved by 33 percentile points, which moved them from the bottom to average. Joe Folkman, president of Zenger Folkman, said, “These leaders received some shocking news from this initial 360 degree analysis. Rather than adopt the attitude of ‘This is who I am and I can’t change,’ they embraced and followed through on a development plan that enabled them to go from poor to good leaders.”

Source: Zenger Folkman