Are You Leveraging Your Strengths?

With their 1999 book, First, Break All the Rules, Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman started a new leadership development trend that is still going strong today.  The basic premise is that leaders should focus on their strengths, and not worry so much about developing their weaknesses.  Frankly, as a leadership coach, I’ve always had mixed feelings about this approach, but let’s set that aside for a moment and explore the concept.

Based on an exhaustive body of research and two best-selling follow-up books (Now, Discover Your Strengths, written by Buckingham and Donald Clifton in 2001, and Go Put Your Strengths to Work, by Buckingham, 2007) the authors endorse a management strategy that says each person’s talents are enduring and unique, and that each person’s greatest room for growth is in the areas of his or her greatest strength.  At the heart of the second book is an internet-based profile that you can take to discover your strengths.  By mapping your answers to 34 dominant themes, the idea is that you can identify, embrace and accentuate your strengths to great advantage, in your personal life and career.

So the first question is: “do you truly know your strengths?”  While I think it’s important to identify these for yourself, perhaps a bigger question is: “do others agree with that assessment?”  It would seem important to get external validation that certain traits or skills indeed are your strengths (in other words, don’t just take your own word for it!).

The second question for me is: “you mean I’m really not supposed to work at all on my opportunities in other areas?”  I can buy that your strengths are your best asset – that makes intuitive sense.  If you’re a great communicator or strategist, keep communicating and building strategy.  But that said – is there absolutely no room for improvement in other areas of your game?  I can’t buy that.  First of all, it doesn’t seem very fun to just work on what you’re already good at.  Who wants to work on the same thing every day?  Athletes don’t do that – if Tiger Woods just stayed with his strengths, he wouldn’t have made so many swing changes in his career, and he’d still be bombing 350 yard drives off the fairway.

I also think that it might be a very limiting move early in your career.  Maybe this works for senior executives who are really leveraging their greatest strength at the top of the organization.  But I can think of dozens of less experienced managers who if they had just stuck with the skill they were best at would still be stuck doing the same work (writing analyst reports, doing research, etc.).

So I’m caught on the outside looking in with this current management philosophy. And it’s very popular – the StrengthsFinder Profile is one of the fastest growing assessment tools out there.  In fairness, I do think it’s well researched, and does serve a purpose – I can endorse identifying and knowing your strengths; that’s good, and everyone could benefit from this knowledge.  I also buy that we could all probably put our strengths to work more effectively.  I just can’t buy that we should withdraw from working on the other parts of our leadership game.  Seems to me the well-rounded leader may have some advantage over the supremely-talented-in-a-few-areas leader.

I’d love to hear from you on this one – what do you think?  Drop in a comment if you’ve taken the StrengthsFinder; what did it reveal for you?  Has it helped you become more effective?  We won’t approach the scientific rigor of Buckingham’s research, but it would be cool to get a dialog going on this interesting topic.

As for me, I’m going to try and leverage my strengths, yes – but I’m going to keep working on those flaws, too.  Maybe it’s fruitless in the end, but I’ll explore some new ground and have a development adventure that I’m sure will be worth the journey.