April 4, 2022
One of the most dramatic changes in leadership development in the last decade has been the shift in focus from correcting weaknesses to identifying and expanding on strengths. As this movement continues to catch hold, three myths have emerged that deserve to be dispelled.
While it’s true that prominent practitioners of leadership development have only recently adopted a focus on strengths as an accepted practice, the idea is far from new. As far back as 1967, in his classic book, The Effective Executive, management guru Peter Drucker wrote:
“The effective executive makes strengths productive. To achieve results, one has to use all the available strengths — the strengths of associates, the strength of the superior, and one’s own strengths. These strengths are the true opportunities. To make strength productive is the unique purpose of the organization. It cannot overcome the weaknesses with which each of us is endowed, but it can make them irrelevant.”
One of us recalls hearing Drucker talk eloquently about this a good 50 years ago, and Drucker certainly would never have been described as a touchy-feely social scientist. As the father of much of modern management theory and practice, he was simply describing the best management practices versus those he thought made no sense.
There is no question that there are beneficial things a person can do that if taken to excess, can become serious problems. As many have pointed out, people can die from massive doses of water, which in reasonable amounts is utterly essential. But leadership strengths don’t work the same way. When people think of overdoing a strength, what they’re really thinking about is overdoing some associated behavior. The distinction becomes easier to see if you ask yourself a question like “Can an executive be excessively honest?” Those who think so might fear too much honesty would lead someone to be overly blunt or boorish. That may be so, but it’s not inevitable, and it’s boorishness and bluntness that would then be the problem, not honesty in itself.
Or ask yourself, “Can you picture an executive who is too strategic in their thinking?” Perhaps you might assume that being extremely strategic could lead an executive to fail to focus on tactical, day-to-day issues. And again, that could happen, but it’s wrong to assert that strategic thinking causes people to stop thinking tactically. These are different behaviors, and it is just as possible that a strong strategic focus on the future can help executives recognize and quickly change tactics day-to-day because they can understand the long-term impact of today’s problems.
Using 360-degree feedback, our firm typically measures the strength of 19 competencies that most consistently describe highly effective executives. These are the traits—such as driving for results, being inspiring, thinking strategically, and being honest—that correlate most highly with positive organizational outcomes, such as higher productivity, greater customer satisfaction, better employee engagement, higher retention, and better profitability. If doing any of them too well turned a strength into a weakness, then we should see worse results for leaders who score in the 90th percentile and above on a trait than for those scoring well, but not overly well—say at the 65th percentile. But that is not what happens. The higher an individual scores on competencies, the better their business results.
Years ago, in a publication by two prestigious consulting firms, senior HR executives discussed the advantages of focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses. One of the participants said, “The key is to inhibit the de-railers…When you find a person with towering strengths on one or two out of three dimensions, often there’s a fatal weakness on another.”
Is that so? Are strengths linked inevitably with weaknesses, like the proverbial two sides of the same coin? To investigate this question, we selected a group of 16,428 leaders for whom we had 360-degree feedback information. Each received an average of 10 assessments from their direct reports, peers, and boss regarding their leadership skills.
If you arbitrarily describe a skill at the 90th percentile as a “strength” and a competency below the 10th percentile as a “fatal flaw” (or de-railer), you can see what we found in the chart:
Are there exceptions? Yes. The late Steve Jobs was a classic example of someone who possessed towering strengths and fatal flaws. However, our data shows that if you look at a large body of leaders, that happens only about 2% of the time. Essentially the results showed that 93% of people with fatal flaws have no strengths. And the more strengths they had, the lower the likelihood was that they would have a fatal flaw. Bottom line? Our data show that it is, in fact, rare for strengths and weaknesses to cohabitate in the same person.
We believe strengths-based development is definitely here to stay. Its acceptance will be enhanced as some of these lingering myths become dispelled.
— Jack Zenger & Joe Folkman
Connect with Zenger Folkman on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook.
(This article first appeared on HBR)
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