The Seven Dimensions of Leadership Assessment

In my work as an executive coach over the past 30 years, I have developed a useful methodology for assessing leaders. It combines the best approaches I have learned from multiple sources. When I first started in this profession, the prevailing perception was that anyone who needed a coach was in trouble. The coach was hired to fix a problem. Fortunately, that perception has evolved over the years. Now, executives without a coach are questioned for their lack of openness and desire to develop.
Inside-out origami nonagon star. The Enneagram’s nine personality points are often depicted as a nonagram. | Title: Nonagon star, inside out | Author: Mélisande*  | Source: Flickr | License: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

From my experience, I have found that leadership assessment needs to address seven key areas: leadership DNA, strengths, meta-skills, dimensionality, decision-making, teaming, and trustworthiness. Each area is briefly discussed below.

An effective assessment depends upon the conditions the leader is facing and the standards he will be expected to uphold. In the absence of requirements, the assessment may be edifying but not necessarily effective. The most common mistake of leadership assessments is to begin the work before requirements are specified.

The current presidential race is a good example of that mistake. None of the candidates or pundits is talking about the global and domestic requirements facing the next President of the United States. Most of the airtime is devoted to criticizing the lack of capabilities and attributes of the other candidates. No one is analyzing the gap between candidate capabilities and presidential requirements and who is best able to close that gap.

Businesses typically make similar mistakes. They don’t assess leaders on their ability to execute on the strategy or on the competencies required to translate strategy into action. The starting point for any assessment of leadership talent should be the business requirements for which the leader is responsible. I have included a chart at the end of this post that maps personality types and leadership capabilities to organizational requirements.

Given that understanding, here are the seven dimensions of leadership assessment and the tools I have found to be most valuable.

1. Leadership DNA: First and foremost, leaders need to know who they are. The most powerful psychological test I have ever used to help leaders understand their personality type is the enneagram. I prefer the enneagram to all other instruments because it helps leaders identify their specific personality type and distinguish levels of health within each type. Knowing how we are hard-wired helps each of us appreciate personal differences and how we can leverage each other’s strengths.

The Enneagram is available online at The Enneagram Institute. For $12, anyone can take the test—no certification required. Just click on RHETI at the bottom of the page. Remember, the “right” type of leader depends on the requirements of the organization they are trying to lead.

2. Leadership Strengths: Effective leaders need to know and leverage their strengths. While it is important for leaders to know their weaknesses and manage them, it’s more important to play their strong suits without taking those strengths so far they become a weakness.

One of the best tools for identifying strengths is the StrengthsFinder developed by Donald Clifton and Tom Rath. The Clifton StrengthsFinder is the culmination of more than 50 years of Dr. Donald O. Clifton’s lifelong work: helping millions of people around the world to discover their strengths. This test is available online at I also use the Hogan Development Survey (HDS) to help leaders see how their strengths, if taken too far, can become weaknesses. The HDS provides feedback on 11 leadership traits that can undermine a career if used excessively, e.g. being too bold, cautious, or skeptical. This tool helps leaders identify their strengths as well their leadership risks, particularly as they relate to building a team. After all, without a team, who are you going to lead?

3. The meta-skills of leadership: I believe there are three meta-skills of leadership: identify, build, and drive. Identify means to anticipate trends, get ahead of the curve, and generate new sources of gain. The identify meta-skill is of a strategic nature. Build means to design the people, teams, programs, processes, methodologies, models, systems, or platforms necessary for success. The build meta-skill is developmentally focused. Drive means to execute flawlessly, demonstrate a results-orientation, pay attention to details, hold people accountable, push back when necessary and get projects over the finish line. The drive meta-skill is operationally focused. Awareness of leaders’ strategic, developmental, and operational skills enables them to complement their strengths by engaging with people who are stronger in a particular area.

Again, different situations demand different leadership skills. At different inflection points in an organizational life cycle, different skills are required. In the early stages, it is important to be strategic, e.g. to identify the right people for the right projects and the right opportunities to purse. In this stage, generating new ideas and finding innovative applications are required. As an organization grows, it is critical to build the infrastructure required to respond to the market and align the culture behind the strategy. At some point, for those organizations that survive the innovation stage, there is a need to commercialize the products and services. As the organization matures, driving for results and operating efficiently are necessary to establish marketplace positioning and profitability. In this final stage, the product or service becomes commoditized requiring different leadership skills. Each of these meta-skills encompasses multiple competencies.

In our book, Leadership Lexicon, Dr. Bill O’Brien and I categorized over 100 leadership competencies into these three overarching meta-skills. Each of the competencies in the book is defined and illustrated with on-the-job practice suggestions. During the 360-interview process, I ask probing questions about the relative and absolute strengths the leader has in these three areas. I also inquire about how well the leader demonstrates specific competencies in each area.

4. The Dimensions of Leadership: From my point of view, the four dimensions of leadership are: know and grow yourself, know and grow your team, know and grow your organization, and know and grow your clients or customers. How those four dimensions are ranked gives me deeper insights into the leader’s self-awareness, their effectiveness in building high performing team environments, the leader’s skill navigating the organization, and how customer-oriented the leader is. One of the most effective measures of self-awareness is the extent to which the leader is mindful about her behaviors and how they impact others. Mindfulness is manifested by the calmness of the leader in a crisis and by the clarity of her thinking in any situation.

The second rank-order question I ask in my interviews helps to reveal how multi-dimensional and balanced the leader is. Through follow-up questions, I learn what the leader’s priorities are and where she invests her energy. I also get a sense of how quickly the leader learns and whether or not he is more inclined to be creative or rule-bound.

5. Leadership Decision Making: Great leaders make fine discrimination about the best style to use depending upon the situation they are encountering and the level of commitment and capability of the people with whom they are working. In 1938, Lewin and Lippitt proposed classifications of leaders based on how much involvement leaders placed into task and relationship needs. Almost after four decades, in 1973, Tannenbaum & Schmidt came up with a continuum of leadership behaviors, from manager-centric (task) to subordinate-centered (relationship). Simplistically stated, that continuum encompasses a range of five decision-making styles:

  • Tell
  • Sell
  • Test
  • Consult
  • Join

Tell is more authoritative, directive, and decisive. In certain situations, leaders need to make the hard calls whether or not they have as much information and involvement as they might like. In these situations, the leader is not looking for input, she is looking for action.

Sell is more persuasive. There are times when leaders identify what they believe is a great idea, and they need to mobilize people behind that idea. In these situations, leaders need to convince potential followers of the features, advantages, benefits and value of their idea. Being persuasive requires effective communication and influencing skills.

Test is more participative. Effective leaders present their ideas in clear and compelling ways and ask for feedback and suggestions. In some situations, leaders need to be authentic about their requests. It doesn’t work to mask a “tell” with a “test,” i.e. ask for feedback, but don’t listen to any suggestions that don’t agree with or reinforce the proposed idea. Being participative means being open to changing direction based on the feedback from the team.

Consult is, as you would expect, more consultative. Some situations present opportunities to think outside the box and generate creative ideas. In these situations, leaders want to create “blue sky” or “greenfield” environments in which team members are asked to brainstorm as many ideas as possible to solve a problem or optimize an opportunity. In the beginning stages of these situations, there should be no evaluations or judgments. Participants are encouraged to suggest any idea that comes to mind whether it feels bizarre, impractical or unrealistic. The goal is to expand ideas before narrowing and choosing. Effective leaders know how and when to set-up incubator environments, how to welcome different points of view, and how to create positive energy.

Join is more empowering. Effective leaders identify exemplars, free them to initiate, and support their initiatives and ideas. Every team has a range of talent on it. Some tend to observe what’s going on, others participate fully in the work, several look for ways to contribute fresh thinking and new ways of doing things, and a few step up and make things happen – they lead. Great leaders make accurate assessments on the level of functioning of each team member and assign work accordingly. The strongest team members simply need freedom and support. Contributors may simply need some coaching. For those team members who regularly meet expectations, but don’t necessarily generate any additive ideas, the leader will want to delegate tasks with clear expectations, responsibilities, and decision rights.

Dr. Pat Zigarmi, the author of Situational Leadership II and co-founder of The Ken Blanchard Companies, has identified a range of supportive and directive behaviors that are most effective in discreet situations. Blanchard Training offers the most comprehensive training available for teaching leaders the skills they need to flex their style according to situational requirements. To assess a leader’s situational leadership skills, I use a multiple-choice question: “What is this leader’s default decision making style?” This question helps me understand how well the leader flexes her style depending upon the requirements of the situation. The answer to this question not only enables me to determine the style the leader uses most frequently and comfortably, but also where there may be opportunities for development.

6. Team Leadership: Great leaders create environments in which people choose to be optimally motivated. Few leaders are able to inspire their teams to peak performance and passionate engagement, but there are certain essential behaviors that motivate employees to give their hearts, heads, and hands to the task at hand.

In the assessment interview, I ask direct reports how they feel using this 5-point scale:

  • Inspired
  • Invested
  • Involved
  • Informed
  • Ignored

Inspired means people can’t wait to get to work in the morning. The leader creates positive energy and passion on the team as a result of his strategic thinking and authentic relating.

Invested means people are crystal clear about expectations, responsibilities, accountabilities, and decision rights. They own their work because the leader clarifies direction and links each person’s work to the overall strategy.

Involved means people are involved in decisions that affect them. They are full participants in the decision-making process and have a deep sense of belonging to the team and a strong connection to the community.

Informed means that people know what’s happening, but don’t feel like they have a voice in decisions.

Ignored means that people don’t know what’s going on. They feel disconnected, alienated or abused.

Asking how people typically feel as a result of leadership style helps me identify specific behaviors the leader needs to modify in order to improve team performance and community connection. The answer also gives me rich insights on how well the leader is able to lead change. In order to work through the stages of resistance, acceptance, and commitment associated with change, effective leaders need to inform, involve, invest, and inspire their teams and organizations.

7. Leadership Trustworthiness: Without trust leaders can’t lead. The four factors of trust are credibility, reliability, empathy, and drive (CRED). Yes, leaders need to have CRED in order to develop trust.

Credibility is about words. When the leader speaks, there is a strong belief that she has done her research and is not fast and loose with facts. Credibility is also enhanced by the experience, knowledge, and competencies the leader has related to the topic at hand. The leader’s words ring true and people feel comfortable banking on the accuracy and genuineness of what is being said or written. She is seen as being open and honest and having high integrity.

Reliability is about action. If the leader says he will do something by a certain time, people trust it will happen. The leader consistently meets commitments in accordance with requirements and deadlines. People believe the leader will do what she says she will do. He is seen as being completely dependable.

Empathy is about the ability to form personal and professional connections. The leader attends, listens, observes, and demonstrates understanding of other points of view and is appropriately transparent and self-disclosing. People believe that the leader cares about their well-being.

Drive is about perceived self-promotion, i.e. what is this leader’s primary motivation. In order for leaders to be most effective, people need to believe that they are more oriented toward team, organization, and client success than they are about their own success. In order to be effective in most organizations, leaders have to be somewhat self-promoting in order to advance their agenda, but they can’t be seen as only being out for themselves. They need to demonstrate their ability to get results.

In order to keep the interview dynamic and to maintain the interest of the person being interviewed, I switch to a rating question. I ask, “On a 10-point scale (1 being low, 10 being high), please rate the leader’s CRED: the four factors of trust. For credibility, reliability, and empathy, the ideal rating is 10. To me, the ideal score for drive ranges from 4-6 depending on the culture and the situational requirements.

Getting feedback on these seven dimensions is a huge gift to leaders. Effective leaders need to be aware of who they are and how their behaviors are impacting others. Getting the feedback doesn’t mean they have to change who they are – that’s impossible anyway. It is critical, however, to be conscious enough to make a choice. Hopefully, with increased consciousness there can be improvements in intentionality. In today’s environment, these seven dimensions are the essential factors in leading change.

I hope you found this overview of leadership assessment helpful and edifying. The chart below will give you a tool for identifying requirements in each of the seven dimensions, based on the situation the leader is facing, and then tailoring and targeting your assessment against those particular requirements.

Assessing Leadership Capabilities on the Requirements for Success

·       Personality Type Enneagram  
·       Competencies Strengths Finder  
·       Risk Factors Hogan Development  
·       Identify (Strategic) 360 Feedback  
·       Build (Developmental) 360 Feedback  
·       Drive (Operational) 360 Feedback  
·       Self 360 Feedback  
·       Team 360 Feedback  
·       Organization 360 Feedback  
·       Client/Customer 360 Feedback  
Decision Making:    
·       Tell (Directive) 360 Feedback  
·       Sell (Persuasive) 360 Feedback  
·       Test (Participative) 360 Feedback  
·       Consult (Consultative) 360 Feedback  
·       Join (Empowering) 360 Feedback  
Team Leadership: 360 Feedback  
·       Inspiration 360 Feedback  
·       Change Leadership 360 Feedback  
·       Credibility (words) 360 Feedback  
·       Reliability (actions) 360 Feedback  
·       Empathy (connections) 360 Feedback  
·       Drive (self-promotion)  360 Feedback  

I would love to hear what you think is missing or what we could do to improve the leadership assessment process.




Also published on Medium.

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Dottie Brienza
Dottie Brienza

Brilliant Rick! Totally comprehensive and clear.


[…] past. In the 1940s, Gurdjieff brought tremendous wisdom to the East with the introduction of the enneagram.  The enneagream is a personality test with 9 personality types and 7 levels of health within each […]

[…] In my work as an executive coach, I occasionally experience defining moments that change the dynamic of the relationship from pouting to re-purposing. It may be when I confront a client when I hear him or her complain about income when the person is already in the top 1% of earners in the US. Or it could be the way in which I present hard-hitting, 360-feedback that shocks clients into taking a deeper look at who they are and how they behave. The way in which those discussions take place can create a high-impact moment that may lead to… Read more »

[…] We need more people like my Dad in the world today: People whose words you can trust; People who lead their lives with uncompromising integrity; People who won’t sell out their principles for the right price. People who tell the truth and live with honor. […]

[…] Changing the culture requires rigorous inquiry into the actual norms and values of a country or an o…. It also demands comprehensive skills for closing the gaps between the day-to-day lives of people and the professed norms and values  that are not, in reality, practiced.  Changing culture requires openness to hearing how things are actually working and transparency about plans to make things better.  If you watched “Downton Abbey,” you will recall that Lord Grantham was neither open nor transparent. He wanted to believe that he was an all-knowing autocrat and care-taker for his family and the estate. Unfortunately,… Read more »

[…] in my experience assessing leadership potential, I’m not seeing any indication that the selections for the highest posts in the land are based on […]


Sign up now to get notified of new posts by E-mail