When we identify a need or have a desire to improve performance, our initial reaction is almost always to find a weakness and fix it.
It’s like we have an instinct to look for problems and try to repair them. Instinct does not serve us well when developing leadership ability. The truth is that great leaders are not characterized by the absence of weakness. They are characterized by the presence of strengths.
Take a moment to think about the best leaders you have worked with. Were they perfect? Of course they weren’t. It is very likely that they possessed a few truly outstanding abilities that set them apart and made them excellent leaders.
In my review of data on tens of thousands of leaders, and my experience working with senior executives, I’ve consistently seen that in order to perform at a high level, leaders need to possess just three to five areas of extreme competence. What’s more is that there is no secret recipe for which competencies they have to be, as long as they are important to your business.
That has considerable implications for anyone who is interested in achieving better results through improved leadership. Most leadership development work is aimed at helping people get incrementally better at a laundry list of leadership abilities from communication skills to financial acumen. Instead, the emphasis ought to be at selecting a few critical areas of strength (that we enjoy) and developing them much further.
Now here is the rub. Fixing a weakness is straightforward. That is, you get steady, measurable improvements by learning and practicing the basics. After a while, your performance curve will level off. In the same way, people training for a marathon don’t simply increase their mileage in training.
Getting significant improvement requires you to work on complementary skills — what I refer to as “non-linear development.” Think of it like cross training. The marathoner I just mentioned likely supplements a running regimen with weight training, yoga, maybe even biking or swimming. The same principle applies in developing as a leader because to go from good to excellent you need to involve other competencies. I have seen some leaders over-rely on the use of one area of strength at the expense of others. The most common scenario is a leader who is incredibly good at focusing on results but not great with interpersonal skills. The solution here is not to be less focused on results, but to further develop their people skills.
Sure, when weaknesses are really getting in your way or derailing you from achieving your goals, you have to address them, but I see that far less often in my work. It is your strengths that will carry the day for you as a leader.