Many leadership development “experts” are touting Strength Building as the best new way to develop leadership talent.  Strength Building suggests a leader should spend what little development time they have learning to accentuate their top five strengths, versus shoring up their weaknesses. The suggestion is that it is easier to gain productivity and success by doing what you already do better versus trying to become good at the things you are not.  And, if everyone knows their strengths (and deficiencies), the organization can work together to fill in the blanks — a very “positive psychology” approach to leadership.

While accentuating your strengths will benefit, ignoring weaknesses really is not a wise choice.  Think about it:

  • If your car is good at going fast, but poor at braking, should you concentrate your time on learning how to go faster or might it be a good idea to fix the brakes?
  • In baseball, if you can hit a high fastball, but not a curve ball (or low fastball), should you continue to work only on hitting high fastballs, leaving large gaps in your swing for pitchers to exploit?
  • To use Strength Builder leadership parlance, if you are futuristic, have ideation and intellection, but lack interpersonal sensitivity, should you continue to shout your ideas at others hoping they get it and want to follow your lead?
  • If you can only work on five strengths, does that mean you cannot have all nine qualities of extraordinary entrepreneurs?

While the examples are not all based on “leadership competencies” (see Marc Effron’s post for thoughts on competency utility), the point is clear.  While using strength accentuation to get leaders to improve at something is a positive first step, it is not the only step. The research, starting five decades ago with Ben Schneider (i.e., A-S-A), shows that organizations naturally gravitate towards having leaders with similar strengths and, therefore, almost always have deficits and holes in performance that will not be filled by others.  In fact, focusing solely on strengths (individually) will lead to a group of hybrid specialist leaders, which reduces leadership utility across an organization.

So, what should you do instead? Here are three leadership and development points that should help guide your path:

Strengths, or characteristics that are used in a positive fashion, account for about 1/6th of a leader’s performance.  The other 5/6ths of the performance equation are made up of:

  1. Our education and experience in performing the job,
  2. The negative characteristics that get in our way,
  3. How well we fit with the organization’s culture,
  4. Our cognitive complexity, and
  5. How our brain power is used to solve problems and make decisions.

Lesson:  Continue to look at your strengths and really understand them … but understand them within the complete — focusing on only 16 percent of your capacities is not the best solution.

A complete “whole person” assessment (not that “magic bullet” test you keep getting sold) will give you the capacity of choice and the strategic insight to:

  1. Focus on accentuating your strengths,
  2. Learn to stay out of situations where your weaknesses thrive,
  3. Ignore improvement and doing what you have always done, or
  4. Work directly on developing your leadership deficiencies.

Lesson:  Good planners should still offer their planning expertise to the organization while they learn to become more strategic (see number one above). Using e-mail, (that is less confrontational) versus face-to-face exchanges (where you may become nervous with Bill — the aggressive guy down the hall) is fine until you learn better how to deal with aggressive people (see number two above).  Realize that choices one and two from above are precursors to becoming a well-rounded leader.

With concerted effort, a strong feedback loop and desire, improvement can occur. Also, research shows leaders who are at least proficient at all aspects of their role gain better commitment from employees than those who are one-dimensional (or in this case five-dimensional).

Lesson:  Leadership is a lot like lifting weights or staying fit. It is never easy to improve and to get good at it requires resistance (i.e., pushing beyond your comfort zone). So, open your eyes to your entire leadership repertoire, be strategic in how you spend your development time, don’t drive your car without brakes, and keep pushing to improve SOMEWHERE.