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 it’s 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 in the organization knows their strengths (regardless of knowing their deficiencies), the organization can work together to fill in the blanks — a very “positive psychology” approach to leadership.

In this post, we suggest the following — first, while focusing on strengths likely is more fun and enjoyable than working hard to overcome weaknesses, managerial derailers (not strengths) are the single biggest predictor of leadership success. Second, HR executives have grabbed onto this fad without scientific support, to their own detriment, and have lost the trust (AGAIN) of their clients — i.e., line management. Third, simply saying “Everyone is doing it, it must work” is not a legitimate business practice or show any evidence of solid decision making. Finally, committing resources to development and creating a culture of honesty and open feedback without judgment will improve an organization’s bottom-line.

The JDL Group Organizational Agility

Why Strength Building is Not a Wise Choice

While accentuating your strengths may benefit, ignoring weaknesses certainly will negatively impact you and 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 curveball (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. Why?

For one thing, the research, starting five decades ago with Ben Schneider (i.e., A-S-A), shows 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.

Also, the research is clear that managerial derailment, or the dark-side of personality, limits the upper level of management success. Being highly successful interpersonally, and really getting others to like you, will not overcome a lack of attention to details or an unwillingness to follow others’ protocols or assignments.

Finally, while one-third of the world typically sees things almost entirely from a positive perspective, another one-third of the world views things in a negative fashion, with a snake under every rock, an ulterior motive behind every request and a development need always in need of improvement. While solely focusing on strengths may make you popular with the sensitive and social crowd, it lowers credibility across the organization as a whole.

Four Leadership and Development Points

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

1.  Understand Your Strengths Across the Whole Person. Strengths, or characteristics used in a positive fashion account for about one-sixth of a leader’s performance. The other five-sixths of the performance equation are made up of:

  1. Our education and experience in performing the job (i.e., Technical Fit),
  2. The negative characteristics that get in our way (i.e., Dark-side Characteristics),
  3. How well we fit with the organization’s culture (e.g., Motives, Values, and Culture),
  4. Our cognitive complexity and problem solving skills (i.e., Judgment), and
  5. How we use these brain and personal characteristic functions to solve problems, make decisions, and influence others (i.e., Influence Skills).

Lesson:  Continue to look at your strengths and really understand them … but understand them as one piece of the whole person — focusing on only 16% of your capacities is not the best solution.

2.  Gain Strategic Insight. 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 email, (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.

3.  Improvement Isn’t Easy, but it Does Happen. 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.

4.  Building a Feedback Culture Goes A Long Way Towards Non-Judgmental Development Programs. Part of the fear of addressing weaknesses comes from a fear of open and honest feedback — and this is an organizational culture (which is also to say a leadership) issue.  If the organization does not have positive ways to deal with adverse scenarios or otherwise confront in a proactive and building manner, then fads such as strength finding will thrive.  It is part leadership and part HR’s role to create a feedback-rich environment.

Lesson:  HR and leadership must work hand-in-hand to create an environment where (a) we openly discuss strengths AND development needs (because we all have them and no one is judging), (b) we care about the Whole Person and wants to see that thrive person thrive across situations, and (c) we will continue to monitor and hold each other accountable in terms of performance. The more feedback can simply become “just what we do here”, the better off the organization will be. At The JDL Group, we have found via our Guerilla Business Training Performance Feedback session that learning to give and receive both positive and negative feedback can take root with less than two hours of face-to-face training.