Borders and Barnes & Noble have ever-increasing sections on leadership. It seems every famous sports figure or Fortune 500 business person who “makes it to the top” has a word of advice for the rest of us that comprises approximately 250 pages. Most sell their personal experiences modified for the market share. Of course, we buy the books desiring the same results thinking we might use someone else’s key to success. Zenger and Folkman moved beyond the standard formula, expanding their teachings to include quantitative analysis based on qualitative data. An empirical study could then be broadened to simple, actionable principles (p. xv). Charting variables up front (pp. 4-9), The Extraordinary Leader stakes a claim of authority based on over two hundred thousand surveys; hard, objective data.
Polanyi’s quote best describes the procurement of evidence: “you must actually observe them [highly skilled performers] to accurately determine the true cause of their success” (p. 11). Using 360-degree feedback (p. 10) Zenger and Folkman paint the portrait of truly exceptional management by examining the facts. In this way, the story of leadership comes from the bottom-up. Underlings have opportunity to sincerely rate those above them in their company’s organizational chart without fear of job security. For those interested in the results of an honest evaluation from employees’ perspectives on their bosses’ behavior, there could be no better starting point than The Extraordinary Leader. Sifting through questionnaires, a conceptual framework of leadership is developed. Leadership in change, skills, capability, and results form what are referred to tent poles, sustaining the center of the tent, marked “character.”
While the mark of character is the crux value for Zenger and Folkman, the trait itself is never defined by the authors outside of the word “integrity,” which is also bereft of explanation (cf. p. 189). The Extraordinary Leader goes out of its way to disagree with others who have said character is leadership (pp. 55-56). Unfortunately, character is reviewed again in any significance only in chapters three and eight. It seems that while workers deemed the personal affectiveness (intentional spelling) of their leaders’ important, Zenger and Folkman relegated the idea to the background of their writing. The authors even leave the impression that character is up to the individual matching her beliefs with those of the company (pp. 132-133). One would think that what is declared the centerpiece of a contribution to any enterprise would be represented repeatedly.
What does seem to be a high priority in The Extraordinary Leader is changing attitude by changing behavior. Again and again (cf. pp. 80, 186, 234, 260) the reader is told that behavior develops character—not the other way around. Behavior modification, training a person’s internal fortitude by external compulsion, seems to be the underlying belief. As a consequence, the tent pole of results (i.e., pp. 63-65) appears the real interest of Zenger and Folkman. Indeed, an earlier book from Zenger continues to pop up in this book as a sustainer of the theme: Results Based Leadership (cf. pp. 14, 64-65, 232, 256). Performance, production, profit, and pragmatism drive the quest for success. While there is a genuine concern for developing and improving leadership, the ultimate measurement lies in the bottom line. Words like “good,” “average,” “excellent,” and “great” are used without definition. Who needs a description when numbers tell the story?
But then numbers are used to explain away the need to work on weaknesses (p. 139). Using anecdotal evidence from school days, the theme is why work on something that one won’t be good at anyway? Zenger and Folkman focus on strengths, finding ways to make weaknesses “irrelevant” (p. 239). But as soon as one keys on strengths forgetting weaknesses the individual may submarine the process by hurting themselves with their own weaknesses. It seems contradictory to mandate the fix of fatal flaws (p. 239) when they may be the very weaknesses to be ignored.
In a similar vein, what is referred to as “the competency movement” is taken to task in chapter four only to be reinvented through clusters of leadership in the same pages. Tucked away in that discussion is reliance upon the Gestalt theory: experience forms impression (p. 99). In this case, the authors view experiential leadership is the key to understanding how to lead. If principled leadership is stressed in the rest of the book, why revert to another paradigm of evaluation?
Unable to sustain the core of their argument, Zenger and Folkman however do produce principles of common grace for everyone. Chapter five quite rightly points out that everyone is unique. Different needs demand different kinds of leaders. Focusing on strengths rather than weakness shifts the emphasis to giftedness of the person against a focus on someone’s organizational chart (chapter six). Schwarzkopf’s quote on page 205 strikes at the heart of why the Marine Corps is what it is (character). But the concept is left there. Indeed, teamwork is crucial; its tenets developed through the pages of chapter nine. Missing, however, is the core belief that gratitude is the hallmark of every Marine. In the Corps, everyone knows they serve someone outside themselves for the sake of others. An excellent summary of Marine Corps philosophy is not tied to its central tenet, appreciation. Chapter ten cites over a score of improvements leaders can make in their lives, many of them worthy of Christian emulation. Discipleship is the point of chapter eleven: good reminders for everyone in The Church.
Although results are not antithetic to a Christian worldview, results are not the basis for leadership style either. The Extraordinary Leader, while full of important human insights, gives the impression that greatness is equal to “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately?” Dave Ulrich, who wrote the forward, states that the emphasis in this book is on attitudes, that character is key (pp. vii, ix). Without a specific definition and fuller explanation through every chapter, one is left to wonder if the excellent insights in the rest of the book would have been seen differently if viewed through the lens of character. It is the statistical analysis from 360-degree interviews which cements this book in a class by itself. Armed with the employee viewpoint, any leader should be able to make the necessary changes to improve their service in their vocation.
John H. Zenger and Joseph Folkman. 2002. The extraordinary leader: Turning good managers into great leaders. New York: McGraw-Hill. Dr. Mark Eckel is Dean for the School of Undergraduate Studies, Crossroads Bible College. [Originally written for a doctoral course in the summer of 2005]