By: Kevin Nourse, PhD
I just kicked off a year-long leadership academy for a group of 20 physicians that are members of an international medical academy. As part of the program, I administered an emotional intelligence self-assessment that opened many participants’ eyes about their skills and development needs. A number of the participants asked me whether they should focus on developing their strengths or addressing weaknesses. I suggested they consider a balance of both approaches.
Foundational Approaches to Development
There two primary schools of thought on development – the strengths-oriented advocates and the fix-the-flaws gurus.
The strengths approach, popularized by writers Rath and Conchie (2008), is anchored in the positive psychology mindset. Their foundational ideas assume most people are not aware of their strengths. When people develop this awareness and invest time enhancing them, it enhances their abilities, confidence, and satisfaction. By extension, this school of thought suggests focusing on fixing weaknesses is frustrating and does not translate to sustainable performance improvement. A critical aspect of this approach is leveraging others’ strengths, recognizing that no leader can be good at everything.
Steve, a chief operations officer in a health system, is highly skilled as a project manager and ensuring no detail slips through the cracks. However, because he is very good at this competency and enjoys doing it, he rarely thinks strategically about his organization, including longer-term planning and visioning. Given his level in his organization, Steve needs strategic thinking capabilities to perform his role. In developing his project management strengths, Steve might want to consider how he might become more aware of when to tap this strength. For example, when identifying strategic opportunities and a new initiative vision, using a project management perspective might not be the best choice. He could also consider tapping the strategic thinking capabilities of his second in charge, Maria.
The more traditional approach to development emphasizes identifying a gap between your current (deficient) and desired behavior. The development plan then focuses on filling the gap by increasing your skill and confidence. In many cases, these deficits are created by overusing ones’ strengths. The overuse or misuse of strengths can create derailing behavior or what leadership researchers Robert Kaiser and Darren Overfield (2011) refer to as “lopsided leaders.”
Although Steve may never be an expert in strategic thinking, he could develop some necessary capabilities in this area to mitigate his weaknesses, enabling him to be able to speak strategy to his boss, the CEO. To achieve this, he could allow his second in charge, Maria, to mentor him, read a good book on the topic, or engage trusted colleagues about practicing this skill.
Hybrid Approach: Striking a Balance
I subscribe to a hybrid approach of development that embraces both methods. This approach assumes the importance of focusing on using your strengths and developing substantial weaknesses that could derail your career and limit your success. Further, it entails leveraging the talents of your leadership team to augment your weaker skills. In constructing their development plans, I often recommend that leaders identify one strength and one weakness.
Here are seven useful strategies for your development to consider that integrate the strength-based and deficit perspectives:
- Ask five trusted colleagues to identify your top 3 strengths and their impact, along with specific situations when they are most helpful.
- Reflect on conditions where your interactions with others did not succeed and assess the extent to which you may have overused your strengths.
- Reflect on peak experiences or achievements and determine how your strengths contributed to the successful outcomes.
- Consider mentoring others who are interested in developing skills you would consider to be your key strengths.
- Reflect on your job role and determine the extent to which you can enlist your strengths; consider negotiating a change in your job role with your boss to find ways to align better with your strengths.
- Identify role models; interview them to find out how they think and behave.
- Consider how you can leverage the strengths of others on your team to mitigate your weaknesses.
Successful leaders are intentional about their development and take consistent action over time to optimize their potential. Well-crafted development plans include a balance of developing both strengths and weaknesses. By taking a balanced approach, leaders can ensure they are well-prepared for future roles.
Kaiser, R.B. & D.V. Overfield. (2011). Strengths, strengths overused, and lopsided leadership. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 63, 89-109.
Rath, T. & Conchie, B. (2008). Strengths Based Leadership. New York: Gallup Press.
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Dr. Kevin Nourse has more than 25 years of experience developing transformational change leaders in healthcare and other sectors. He is the founder of Nourse Leadership Strategies, a coaching and leadership development firm based in Southern California. For more information, contact Kevin at 310.715.8315 or firstname.lastname@example.org