Developing Personal Strengths: Is It “Playing The Hand You’re Dealt” Or “Making A Free Choice”

December 16, 2021

Developing Personal Strengths: Is It “Playing The Hand You’re Dealt” Or “Making A Free Choice”

There are two extremely different points of view about the strengths that a person can develop. These divergent views are:

  1. Playing the hand you’re dealt. A block of marble symbolizes this view at its extreme. Chances are you’ve heard the story of the sculptor who was asked how he created such beautiful statues. He answered that he envisioned the figure inside and then chipped away all the marble that was not part of the figure. This describes the first view of developing strengths. They reside within you. They have been there since you were born. They are not always visible to others or you. Your challenge, therefore, is to discover them. You’re not creating new strengths or doing much to expand or shape them. What is there is not of your choosing. This point of view is held by many who have been strong champions of discovering your strengths and finding ways to use them more powerfully.
  2. Making a free choice. This view of strengths can also be referred to as the “Benjamin Franklin approach.” Those familiar with the history of Benjamin Franklin will recall that at the age of 20, he decided to develop 13 virtues. These included qualities such as temperance, frugality, resolution, order, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, humility, and tranquility. Franklin created a check sheet on which he regularly recorded his self-assessment of his progress in acquiring that virtue. There was no consideration as to which of these came more naturally to him. His selection of virtues was based on the qualities or behaviors he wished to acquire based on his reading of classical literature and his observations of others whom he admired. He overtly selected the qualities for which he would ultimately become known. History suggests he generally succeeded in his quest to develop these virtues.

These opposite perspectives highlight the big question for those who advocate a strengths philosophy. Do we have latitude in selecting the strengths to develop? That choice may be driven by some behavior we deem to be essential or that we want to develop for any reason. Beyond that, it may be something that your current work position needs or that your current organization needs from you.

Having some inborn tendencies may help you in developing that strength, but that is not the deciding factor. Parents generally confirm that certain behaviors and attitudes are expressed at a relatively early age in a child. We concur that the impact of genetics cannot be denied. Studies done with identical twins separated at birth suggest that their genetics strongly influenced one-third of their behavior. The primary conclusion, however, is that two-thirds of behavior is not genetically driven. The answer to the age-old question, “Are leaders made or born that way?” cannot be one word. It is indeed a combination of the two, with the far heavier component being “leaders are made” rather than “born.”

We strongly take the position that developing strengths goes far beyond merely identifying tendencies or inclinations with which you are born. No one should feel tightly constrained with the belief that they are destined to only discover the strengths with which they were born. This is an extremely limiting, narrow view of human potential. What’s more, it is an extremely limited view of what might happen to a person over their lifetime. That people cannot grow and develop over the eight or nine decades of their life is an extremely dismal view of human potential and the human condition.

You can learn to think strategically. You can learn to be a better problem solver. You can learn to communicate more effectively. You can learn to take initiative. You can increase your innovativeness. You can learn to be an outstanding team member and collaborator. These strengths may not have been genetically inserted into you, but like Benjamin Franklin, you can acquire them.

—Jack Zenger
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(This article first appeared on Forbes)