When it comes to talent and leadership development, there are many powerful pathways to achieve growth. One of the faster growing areas is the strengths-based approach to development. It’s not surprising that this area has become so popular. First, it feels good. When we are able to leverage and expand upon our strengths, we’re operating within our comfort zone. Also, the experience is less threatening. Anyone who has delivered difficult 360-degree feedback to individuals knows how long it can take to break down the defensive barrier most experience when identifying weaknesses. With a Strengths-based approach, the engagement begins immediately and requires little effort to establish buy-in. Finally, there is a strong body of research that supports a Strengths-based approach to development.
However, the key to an effective Strengths-based approach isn’t to ignore weaknesses. One important part of Strengths-based development is to explore if there are ways in which your strengths are experiencing barriers in practice. In other words, to fully realize the potential of your strength, do we also need to explore some weaker development areas?
For example, I once worked with a gentleman that I’d consider a creative genius. He could think circles around everyone in the room. His brain was an iPhone 10 while all of ours were more like a first-generation Nokia flip phone. He was always 10 steps ahead of everyone and was able to draw connections between incredibly complex concepts with ease.
His Achilles heel was that his ideas could never gain traction because of his delivery. He knew he was the smartest person in the room. So, when he was challenged by others, he became defensive and claimed that they weren’t smart enough to understand the vision. Even when his ideas were embraced, he was incapable of receiving constructive feedback. There was never an opportunity for collaboration. Either he was in the driver’s seat, or he became a disruptor to the whole process. Additionally, while he was a great visionary, he had no patience for practical conversations about logistics and details. He felt that this was “small thinking” and wasn’t worth his time. So, in the end, others would step forward to execute on his vision, but fail to meet his expectations because he chose to disengage during the process.
He is a great example of someone who did not need to develop his gifts. He needed to learn how to develop everything else to optimize his gifts. When done properly, Strengths-based development often isn’t about continuing to develop the strength itself, it’s about learning how to exercise that strength more effectively. So, while Strengths-based leadership may sound like the soft, easy way to accelerate talent development, the truth is maximizing a strength may turn into a tough conversation about what’s truly limiting our potential.