Why Focus Leadership Development on Strengths?

We’re flushing time, resources and dollars down the toilet when we focus them on improving performance by investing in weaknesses and fixing what’s wrong. Investing those same resources into more fully leveraging strengths and extending what’s right, would yield much higher returns on the investment.

Strengths Development

I wish everyone making leadership development decisions could hear this observation I recently heard from a client:

“I think the whole approach of saying, ‘We’re going to develop your weak natural behaviors,’ is where all the leadership development dollars are going down the toilet.”

Let that soak in.

We’re flushing time, resources and dollars down the toilet when we focus them on improving performance by investing in weaknesses and fixing what’s wrong. Investing those same resources into more fully leveraging strengths and extending what’s right, would yield much higher returns on the investment.

Investing in weaknesses is a losing proposition. It’s money down the toilet. But it’s our natural inclination, and most of us spent the majority of our formative years steeped in that model. It’s how the American educational system works. But even that model moves toward strengths in the end. Here’s an illustration…

Think back to your time as a student and remember what happened when your teacher handed back a graded test. What did you do? If you’re like most of us, in this order you:

  1. Looked at the top to see the grade
  2. Scanned through the test to see what you missed
  3. Figured out what you needed to do to remediate the areas of weakness so you could get better results in the future.

This approach works great in an educational setting where the focus is on acquiring knowledge and skills that build on one another. For example, if you don’t learn the basics of the scientific method, it’s hard to move forward into designing your own experiments. If the goal is to design your own experiments, you have to remediate any gaps in fundamental knowledge to effectively achieve that goal.

But even in education, that model shifts toward a greater focus on strengths. Somewhere in the transition from undergraduate to graduate education in America, students begin to focus less on closing gaps and acquiring the fundamental knowledge they need to reach higher goals. They start building on their strengths (their natural talents, aptitudes and passions, along with the knowledge and skills they have already mastered) to create new knowledge. This is where students who have so far been consumers of knowledge start becoming the scholars and professionals who produce new knowledge and insight.

The need to acquire new skills and knowledge never stops, but it becomes aimed in the direction of the individual’s greatest interest and toward furthering already acquired mastery and expertise – not in the direction of closing gaps in skills and knowledge that are unrelated to the talents, aptitudes, interests, abilities, and outstanding accomplishments of the student-turned-scholar.

Leaders are the students turned scholars of the business world. They have followed their aptitudes and interests to attain mastery and expertise. Wise investments in their ongoing growth focus on extending and realizing the full impact they can have through that mastery and expertise…those strengths that by now have become an inextricably intertwined combination of their natural talents and their investments in cultivating those talents over time. Turning their focus toward tangentially related areas of weakness and calling it “development” is counterproductive because:

  1. It diverts their focus away from the strengths that drive optimal performance.
  2. It can actually have a negative impact on engagement and job satisfaction as they turn away from areas that create enjoyment and success and toward those that require high effort for low reward.
  3. The consequent return on the investment will be lower for the individual and for the organization.

If you’re thinking about making an investment in your own development as a leader or in the development of someone you mentor or lead, don’t throw that investment down the toilet. Make sure your approach to that development starts from a foundation of building on strengths and leveraging what’s right, not from a foundation of remediating weaknesses and fixing what’s wrong.

Don’t think this gives anybody a pass. Great leaders still have to deliver the right outcomes, even in areas that might not coincide with their strengths. But developmental efforts for getting them to those right outcomes should be focused on leveraging their strengths, not fixing their weaknesses.

I’m interested in your comments and suggestions. How might this perspective impact the investments you make in leadership development in 2016? Let’s continue the conversation!

By Kim Turnage
Published by Talent Plus on 07 Nov 2016
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