Strengths-based development is a fine strategy for athletes and technical professionals. For leaders? Not so much. Here’s the better way to develop tomorrow’s talent.
By Rob Kaiser, M.S.
When Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton first introduced the concept of strengths-based development in their 2001 book, Now, Discover Your Strengths, they unleashed a full-fledged talent management trend.
They also created a monster. Since then, the concept of strengths-based development has been elaborated, extended, and stretched well beyond its original usefulness.
The idea of finding your unique, natural-born talents and then building a career around them may have a lot to offer for specialists like athletes, line workers, and technical professionals, but it doesn’t work so well for leaders. Nonetheless, the approach is regularly practiced in coaching, training seminars, and development programs.
I urge caution in applying the strengths-based approach to leaders—I don’t dismiss it, but call attention to the hidden dangers. There simply isn’t compelling evidence it works.
Proponents of the method offer lots of testimonials, web posts, and self-published white papers that make extraordinary claims. But here’s the truth: There isn’t a single peer-reviewed study that shows how coaching leaders to strengths is more effective than other forms of training and development.
I recommend a more balanced approach, grounded in years of findings produced from a diversity of researchers and institutions. Most importantly, research shows that it can produce the kinds of leaders we need to engage employees and lead organizations through disruptive operating environments.
But before you pursue this smarter strategy, you’ll need to understand why chasing strengths may be a leadership weakness.
The Appeal of Strengths-Based Development
The popular form of the strengths approach rests on three assumptions:
- Talent is pretty much hardwired, and after a certain age people can’t change much.
- Trying to fix weaknesses will yield limited returns; you might go from inadequate to average, but you’ll never be great.
- Redirecting effort from fixing weaknesses to maximizing talent and strength is the only way to achieve greatness.
There’s a seductive appeal to focusing on strengths. Leaders are drawn to it because it lets them off the hook for their shortcomings. It gives development professionals permission to avoid confronting leaders with their weaknesses or nudging them out of their comfort zones and into new and uncertain areas of learning.
Plus, this approach promises that everyone can avoid hard, difficult work and still achieve greatness in their own unique way. And who wouldn’t prefer an easy road to greatness?
The Problems with Strengths-Based Development
The strengths-only approach is simplistic and ignores what we know about how managers learn to become effective leaders. It also neglects what we know about how and why leaders get derailed in their careers. Consider the following.
1. Weaknesses matter. This is the most obvious flaw. A brilliant striker may be able to build a soccer career by scoring and not playing defense. But the job requirements of leadership aren’t elective, and if managers can’t or won’t perform them, organizational performance will suffer.
A creative, big-picture thinker must be able to translate vision into realistic operating plans with specifics about resources, responsibilities, and timelines to execute. A natural collaborator who can bring people together to pool their insights also needs to be able to end the discussion and make a decision. A leader must translate strategy and input into action to get results.
The usual solution offered by advocates of the strengths approach is to staff around weaknesses, but this has limited applicability. How well can the creative visionary communicate with, trust, and empower the detailed tactician? The gamble may work, but it requires a great deal of mutual respect and effort, which is why these sorts of arranged corporate marriages often fail.
Furthermore, this solution doesn’t even apply to many required leadership skills. The primary reason for executive derailment is relationship problems. How realistic is it to appoint someone else the role of soothing the bruised feelings left in the wake of a clever business thinker who is great with analysis and the hard side of management, but is also abrasive and weak on the soft side? Ignoring weaknesses is both a lethal career strategy and a poor way to manage talent.
2. Strengths can be a missed blessing. Research has found that strengths become weaknesses when overused: Consider the technical expert who gets lost in the weeds, for example, or the hard charger who comes on too strong. Name a strength, and I can name you an executive who has overdone it.
My colleagues and I just published a paper showing how leaders can be too charismatic, using their spellbinding influence to convince their organizations to overreach. A recent peer-reviewed research study even showed how leaders can be “too smart”: The most effective leaders scored a little above average on a standardized IQ test, but those who scored a lot higher than average had a harder time connecting with people and tended to make strategic and operating plans unnecessarily complicated.
In a study, leaders who took the Gallup StrengthsFinder assessment were five times more likely to overdo behaviors related to their strengths. In addition, there was a 90 percent chance that they neglected opposing but complementary skills and behaviors.
For instance, if “command” was one of their standout strengths, leaders were likely to be rated as overly controlling, pushy, and dictatorial. And every single leader with “command” as a strength was rated as not empowering, delegating, or collaborative enough.
These findings were a natural pattern—the leaders hadn’t been encouraged to play to their strengths. Just imagine what the results would have been had they been encouraged to do that and to ignore their weaknesses? Such an approach is apt to create one-dimensional leaders with limited toolkits: The bigger their hammers, the more everything looks like a nail.
Research from my shop, the Center for Creative Leadership, Lominger (now part of Korn/Ferry), Zenger-Folkman, Russell Reynolds, and a host of academics have shown that the most effective leaders are the ones with the broadest repertoire of complementary skills and competencies. Which leads to the third problem:
3. Playing to strengths can inhibit leadership development. Continuous learning and the ability to deal with the unknown, untested, and untried may be the secret to long-term success, especially in today’s complex, dynamic, ever-shifting world.
However, playing to strengths is better suited to a static world than a dynamic world. Repeatedly assigning leaders to jobs that call for their strengths (sending a “fix-it” manager only into turnaround situations, for example) robs them of the opportunity to branch out and learn how to lead in other situations.
Most development comes from work experience, and the most effective strategic leaders have had the most diverse careers. They’ve zigged and zagged across functions, business units, and regions, and have faced different types of challenges and a diverse array of people.
Playing to strengths may have a short-term advantage—you capitalize on deep expertise and well-honed skills—but misses the golden opportunity to build a capable leader of the future.
The Balanced Approach to Learning and Development
In an era of scarce talent, marked by concern with employee engagement and retention, it’s no surprise that we’re eager to embrace an approach that deals only with positives. But this is like making business decisions based on upside potential without seriously considering downside risk.
A balanced approach to learning and development is much more likely to produce a deep bench of versatile leaders who can guide organizations through challenges lurking in an unpredictable future.
To be sure, dwelling on your weaknesses will not make you a great leader. At the same time, when practiced with a single-minded focus, the strengths approach can become an exercise in self-indulgence. It’s a case of putting the needs of the individual above the greater good. But true, effective leadership is about serving that higher purpose.
Leaders should absolutely know their talents and discover their strengths. But the value of this insight isn’t just so they can play to those strengths; rather, it’s so they can better manage how they use their strengths, making the most of them without overdoing it. And it’s also helpful in recognizing which leadership requirements don’t come easily.
The creative visionary may never be great with the tactical details. But turning a blind eye on disorganization and inefficiency and giving up on developing some degree of proficiency is seriously misguided. It’s limiting for both the individual and the organization.
The fact is, replacing a one-sided perspective—an obsession with fixing weaknesses—with another one-sided perspective (an exclusive focus on maximizing strengths) is not a move forward. Just as our increasingly polarized politics create false dichotomies, talent professionals don’t have to choose between either strengths or weakness.
Beyond the swinging pendulum of fads and fashion, a better approach takes the middle path in recognizing that both strengths and weaknesses have an appropriate place in leadership development.
Rob Kaiser, M.S., is the president of Kaiser Leadership Solutions, which develops and distributes tools for leadershipassessment and development and uses data analytics to advise CEOs and HR leaders on talent strategy. He is also the editor-in-chief of Consulting Psychology Journal.