Playing to your strengths
Focus on developing your weaknesses and your performance may suffer. Ian Pettigrew explains why strengths based leadership can help you make the most of your natural talents.
Everybody has talents: true strength comes from being resourceful and making the most of them.
I’ve worked with strengths-based leadership for a lot of my career and it has radically changed the way I see the world. To be more specific, it has changed the way I see myself as well as the way I see other people: strengths-based leadership has had a huge positive impact in helping me get the best from myself and others. It has become such a part of my way of working and being that I often taken it for granted and it seems really obvious to me, but I know that not everybody sees the world in the same way. I know this, because I often encounter people and organisations who are struggling with the following:
- A person’s performance review/development plan keeps highlighting the same weaknesses year after year but they never seem to be able to ‘fix’ them
- Managers are able to get the best out of people who are similar to them, but really struggle to get the best out of people who are different
- Teams don’t seem to be diverse, and feel somewhat homogeneous
- Talent is seen as a rare commodity that just a few people have
Strengths vs. weaknesses
Strengths-based leadership can easily be something that organisations pay lip service to: we might use the phrases ‘play to your strengths’ and ’be the very best version of you’ but what does that actually mean? Some ‘motivational quotes’ touch on strengths (e.g. ‘If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is a failure’) but, again, what does that mean?
I see two big ways in which people get this wrong: Firstly, I see people who believe that we grow most through ‘correcting’ our weaknesses, that we learn when we stretch ourselves and play to our weaknesses, that we all need to be well-rounded people. This group will often lose sight of their strengths as they are so busy focusing on weaknesses.
Secondly, I’ve also seen people start to get a limited idea of what their strengths are but then they use this knowledge of their strengths to constrain themselves. Rather than be liberated and empowered, they feel the opposite and they actually feel like there are less things that they can do.
Everyone has talent
I firmly believe that both of these perspectives are wrong, and somewhere between these two is a place where we can really thrive. Strengths-based leadership starts with appreciating that we are all different, that everybody has talent, and that there will be some things that we each find naturally easy and there will be some things that we naturally find more difficult. The very wise Peter Drucker said “A person can perform only from strength. One cannot build performance on weakness, let alone on something one cannot do at all” and I totally accept that. Our peak performance comes from playing to our strengths, which leaves us just one problem – many people don’t know what their strengths are. This seems to be due to both an excessive focus on weaknesses and the fact that we often don’t realise our strengths, because playing to them is effortless so we dismiss them as insignificant. There is a real power in realising what you are naturally talented at. Assessments such as Gallup StrengthsFinder can help to identify your talents, as can asking people who know you.
But herein lies the real subtlety of strengths-based leadership: what do we do when we need to do something that we’re not naturally talented at it? If you focus on your weaknesses then you might believe that this is your priority area for development, that you need to read all about how to develop your weakness, go on courses to develop in this area and get loads of ‘development’ opportunities to play to your weakness. If you believe that it is all about strengths, then you might choose to give up on a challenge (as it just isn’t for you) or decide that you’re just going to be yourself and not worry about the stuff you can’t do. But your strengths shouldn’t constrain you and you have loads of options. Often, there are ways to creatively apply your strengths to achieve anything. You might well have strengths that aren’t always in the front of your mind that you can draw on when needed, and you can mitigate and work around weaknesses where you need to. And don’t forget that if you’re part of a team, you don’t have to do everything yourself and you can draw on the strengths of those around you (which is especially powerful if the team has a diverse range of talents).
If I had to sum up strengths-based leadership in one word, it would be resourcefulness. Whether you like them or not, you have loads of talents alongside some things you’re not so good at. Rather than focus on what you aren’t, there is a lot to be gained from being resourceful and making the most of what you (and others) are! Your strengths, your natural talents can liberate you and help you succeed effortlessly. Everybody has talents: true strength comes from being resourceful and making the most of them.
Three tips to help you put strengths based leadership into action:
- Get into the habit of catching people ‘doing things right’ and noticing different talents being applied
- Ask people who know you well for feedback about what you’re naturally talented at
- When you’re delegating things to others, be clear about the outcome you want but give them the freedom to achieve it their way (i.e. the way that plays to their strengths)
About Ian Pettigrew
Ian Pettigrew is a Gallup-trained strengths coach and is determined to do whatever it takes to help people find their true strength. For more information go to http://www.kingfishercoaching.com or connect with him on Twitter @KingfisherCoach
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