The power of strengths based leadership

One of my favourite activities during lockdown was using Gallup’s StrengthsFinder method with all five members of the Taylor family, including Mrs Taylor and my three daughters (aged 18, 18 and 21). I first came across StrengthsFinder over 15 years ago in Now Discover Your Strengths, a book I covered in a post on ‘Books that Changed my Life’. I found the strengths based leadership approach incredibly powerful and have used these strengths as guiding lights in my personal and professional life ever since.

In this post we look at an overview to the approach of focusing on strengths and how you could start using it.

1. The weakness of focusing on weaknesses …

In the early years of my career, managers focused on identifying and fixing weaknesses, or ‘opportunities for improvement’ as they called them at Procter & Gamble. “John, you’re weak at public speaking,” went a typical performance review. “So we’re sending you on a training course called Conquering Your Fear of Presenting. You’ll have plenty of opportunity to implement what you learn when you come back, with a work placement in the sales team!”

This focus on fixing weaknesses is prevalent in many companies. Only 1/3 of people strongly agree with the statement, “At work I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day”, in a global Gallup survey of 10million people (1). “At its fundamentally flawed core, the aim of almost any leaning program is to help us become who we are not,” Gallup suggests.

The obsession with weaknesses also shows up in family life. If you have kids, you may find yourself complaining about what they are not good at. If so, you’re not alone. A massive 77% of US parents think that a student’s lowest grades deserve the most time and attention, according to research by Gallup (1), with similar results across different cultures.

This focus on weaknesses, not strengths, can lead to a lack of engagement. People with a boss focused primarily on weaknesses are 22 times more likely to be actively disengaged (see below). Why? Because we end up spending time and energy swimming against the tide of our natural talents. The dominant mindset here is that ‘you-can-be-anything-you-want-to-be’, as long as you work hard enough on fixing your weaknesses. But this can be a long, hard and un-rewarding slog.

2. … the power of strengths based leadership 

People who have the opportunity to focus on their strengths every day are six times more likely to be engaged in their jobs and three times more likely to report having an excellent quality of life in general; they get a better return on time and effort invested. Rather than trying to change who you are, you work at being a lot more of what you already are. Importantly, this doesn’t mean a life of repetition. “When we put most of our energy into developing our natural talents, extraordinary room for growth exists,” Gallup suggests.

The StrengthsFinder method is based on 34 different themes of talent, that Gallup identified by analysing 100,000 talent-based interviews. A survey with 100+ questions identifies which five themes form your own personal ‘signature’. Research suggests that these core talents tend to stay relatively stable over time. Childrens’ personalities at age 3 showed remarkable similarity to their reported traits aged 26, in one study of 1,000 people in New Zealand (1).

Having identified your signature talents, the StrengthsFinder approach is to then invest time in practicing and developing these talents to turn them into strengths, and eventually super-strengths.

3. Identifying and managing ‘blindspots’

What I found most powerful about the strengths based leadership approach is how it recognises no-one is perfect. Identifying and celebrating strengths is important, but so is acknowledging and accepting that these strengths often have as a flip side a weakness, or what Gallup calls a ‘blindspot’.

Back to my earlier example of John, signature talents like ’empathy’ and ‘developer’ make him well suited to a role in people development, such as a mentor or coach. The flip side might be relative weaknesses in the ‘communication’ and ‘command’ talents. With a strengths-led approach, there are several solutions here:

1. Avoid: Find a role where the weakness is not an issue, as it is not relevant – don’t move John to sales to expose him to presenting, keep him in roles where he can work one-on-one
2. Neutralise: Team John up with someone who is strong in their area of weakness – if John does have to present, don’t make him do it alone, buddy him up with an ace presenter
3. Minimise: Work on getting the weakness up to an OK, minimum level but nothing more – if you do send John on presentation training, make it clear he only needs to be OK, not perfect

4. Making teams more productive 

Strengths based leadership can help teams work more efficiently and effectively, by identifying the strengths, and the blindspots, of team members. This is incredibly helpful in recognising and respecting how people with different strengths work in different ways.

Early experience also suggests it can help families, especially during our crazy Covid locked down times! As a dad with talents in ‘achievement’ and ‘focus’, where goal-setting and forward planning are key, I now better understand the reason for occasional bust-ups with one of my daughters. She has talents that are pretty much diametrically opposite, including ‘adaptability’ and ‘connectedness’. Her approach, which has served her well, is to live for the day and let things evolve naturally, based on people she meets and connections she makes. I need to let her ‘go with the fl0w’, and not impose my way of doing things.

In conclusion, now could be an ideal time to take the StrengthsFinder yourself, as part of a program to investing in ‘brand you’ as brandgym partner Prasad Narasimhan suggested in this post. I can vouch from personal experience that it is an energising and inspiring approach to personal development.

For more specifically on the role of building your brand strategy capability strengths, see this earlier post.