Are You Really as Good a Leader as You Think? (Hint: You Aren’t)

I bet it won’t come to you as a big surprise but when it comes to coaching, executives often think pretty highly of their ability to get through to their people. “I think I am a pretty good coach” is a typical smug self-assessment. But according to a new study from the Harvard Business Review (HBR), leaders’ actual performance doesn’t follow their confident perception.

Interested in this gap, the HBR put nearly four thousand business leaders to the test by having them assess themselves and others assess them and comparing the results. And the truth hurts: A full 24% of leaders are--cheer with me--OVERRATED!

What’s more, those leaders who overrated themselves actually performed significantly below average, landing in the 32nd percentile. On the other hand, those who underrated themselves were graded with higher overall coaching effectiveness, in the 57th percentile. In short, to quote one write-up of the study, if you “think you’re a good coach but you actually aren’t, this data suggests you may be a good deal worse than you imagined.”

But what’s the solution for leaders who aren’t measuring up and don’t realize it? For reality to match self-image, it’s time to seek honest and comprehensive feedback. Fortunately, HBR provides a blueprint for this quest. The study identified seven characteristics of those who overestimated their abilities most frequently.

Check the list below and see how you stack up:

  • Poor ListeningDo you really listen well?? Do you listen without judgment, take time to listen, and fully understand? How do you respond? Are you defensive? Do you resist feedback?

  • Not a role modelDo you create an open environment? A circle of trust? Do you give credit to others and look for opportunities to provide recognition and praise?

  • Not collaborativeDo you foster cooperation and collaboration? Or do you focus on competition and making yourself look good in front of others?

  • Don’t develop othersAre you committing the time necessary to truly develop and bring others along?

  • Fail to provide feedbackDo you avoid difficult conversations? Are you so reluctant to provide feedback that you don’t provide any at all? Or do you provide so many negative criticisms that you are discouraging?

  • Lack integrityDo you do the right thing, honor commitments, and keep promises and confidences?

  • Don’t encourage diversityAre you wise enough to understand that organizations are stronger when they value differences?

The essential question is, why do so many leaders lack these skills? I would argue it’s a problem we have created in our rewards and recognition programs, which recognize, promote, and award individuals for business results alone. Amid this race to the top, mentoring often gets the shaft. And if it isn’t valued as it should be, company risers never check themselves for it--or, even worse, assume they have it even if they don’t. Whole industries come to be managed by leaders who never bothered to develop these core coaching competencies, hence the disparity between perception and performance found by the survey.

In my experience, addressing these blind spots often requires someone from the outside to do the digging and to be the messenger. Outsiders are great for a number of reasons. First, the outsider will most likely not be biased by the inner workings of the company. Second, the outsider will have the ability to query and collect 360° feedback without devaluing statements made by lower-level employees. Finally, the outsider can elicit honesty from employees worried about offending their bosses and risking their position. In sum, the outsider will trade on impartiality and expertise to draw out recurring trends and deliver valuable, unprejudiced recommendations.

But there are some simple steps you can take right now to illicit change by addressing the points above (without an outsourced solution).

  • Start meeting your employees individually and giving them time to speak and share their ideas. Considering building this in time into your regular touch base. Allow ten minutes for their agenda, ten minutes for your agenda, and ten minutes to address whatever else might be pressing. Consider using this time to listen and provide positive and constructive feedback. This can be a regular opportunity for you to work on developing others.

  • Back off during meetings! Open your ears and shut your mouth. Truly listen during meetings instead of talking the entire time and making all of the decisions. Engage your employees and encourage them to “think out loud”, to share their opinions, and to offer solutions. Take this time to engage your employees by asking “What” and “How” questions. (For example, what are the factors you considered? How did you come to that conclusion? What outcome are you expecting?) Learn how they approach a particular subject. Draw them out of their shells and give them an opportunity to feel collaborative, rather than making assumptions and shutting them down.

Leaders, pay attention. Your employees crave attentive coaching. And if this survey reveals anything, it’s that they aren’t always getting it and your arrogance may be at fault. The real measure of your coaching ability isn’t belief in yourself, but the belief of your employees.

Go the extra step! Assess your coaching skills and engage your whole team in this assessment. Become inspired and inspire those around you. Your employees will profit, and so, in the long run, will your business.

Sources: Zenger, J., & Folkman, J. (2016). People who think they’re great coaches often aren’t. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from

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