When you brought your report card home in high school did your parents:
A) zero in on the C’s and say, “What’s the matter here?”
B) focus the A-minuses, pat you on the back, and say, “Great job, now let’s push these up to A’s”?
If you’re typical of the high-potential leaders I work with, you experienced A. And I suspect that wasn’t only your parent’s reaction, it was yours as well — and not just for your report cards but for your performance reviews. And why not? The point of a progress report is to point out where you need to make progress. And certainly that means shoring up your weaknesses, doesn’t it?
Not if you want to be an extraordinary leader. As humans we all have our inherent weaknesses. But leadership-development research we’ve conducted with data from thousands of executives from all over the world points unmistakably to the conclusion that it’s the presence of a few truly profound areas of strength that distinguishes us in an organization — the things you’re so good at that people forgive (or don’t even think about) your weaknesses.
The importance of strengths is hardly a new idea. Peter Drucker was writing about it nearly 50 years ago, and over the last decade it has come back in vogue. Yet the practical application of that idea remains elusive. How do you get better at what you’re already good at?
Improving weaknesses is intuitive and straightforward. To display greater honesty or integrity, for instance, is a matter of following through on commitments, leading by example, demonstrating ethical resolve in adverse circumstances. Developing weak technical skills is a matter of attending training classes, reading relevant publications, taking on job assignments in which you can hone your expertise, and so on. But what if you’re already strong in these areas? Taking more classes won’t really help someone who is already a tech wiz become an extraordinary leader. And what should an honest person do: act more honestly?
Creating any profound leadership strength requires a more thoughtful approach. At a very broad level, here are three principles to focus on as you work to develop strengths:
- Developing strengths requires a different approach than fixing weaknesses. We analyzed tens of thousands of leaders to determine which strengths set them apart as leaders, and what we found is that leadership behaviors and competencies tend to cluster together in consistent patterns. Extraordinary leaders with strong technical skills are frequently also good at developing others, building relationships, and communicating powerfully, for instance. Extraordinary leaders known for exceptional integrity also tend to be decisive, assertive, and optimistic. While assertiveness doesn’t make you more honest, it can magnify that trait. That’s called an interaction effect. In the same way that Michael Phelps might improve as a swimmer, not through swimming more laps but by developing complementary strengths such as weight training, running, and other cross-training activities, people can improve leadership strengths by straightforward development of strongly correlated companion skills and behaviors.
- It works because it follows your interests. Working on weaknesses is a drag. It’s drudgery bordering on misery to move from slightly below average to slightly above. One of my weaker areas of leadership has always been finance. Over the last decade I’ve put a great deal of painful effort into moving from below average in this area to reasonable competence. Reasonable I say, because while it’s no longer a problem area for me, it will likely never be an area of strength either, and I work with many colleagues who run circles around me in this regard and always will. I find great enjoyment, on the other hand, in creating strategy, developing our clients and others on my team, putting teams on the right track, and leading growth. These happen to be among my strongest areas of performance.
- Don’t worry about too much of a good thing. Have you ever worked with a leader who possessed too much character? Was too strategic? Overly effective in interpersonal relationships? I doubt it. There are times when leaders can become one-dimensional in their application of a strength area — driving so hard for a result, for instance, that they fail to consider their impact on others. But that failing is not a result of overly developing a strength. It’s a lack of attention to related leadership characteristics. The answer is not to reduce focus on results but rather to increase attention to companion skills like giving clear feedback, developing the talents of direct reports, and providing recognition. To return to Michael Phelps, no one would suggest he stop trying to improve as a swimmer, just that he won’t get there merely by doing more and more laps.
Of course, there are times to work on weaknesses when they really get in your way. I’m not against that at all. It’s why I still take an occasional finance course. But if you really want to make a difference to your company, it’s your strengths that will lead the way. Give them the attention they deserve.