Leading with your strengths
It takes knowledge, skills, talent, self-awareness, and vulnerability.
July 9, 2012 By Daniel Griffiths, CPA, and Gretchen Pisano
“A chain is no stronger than its weakest link, and life is, after all, a chain.”
That quote by American psychologist and philosopher William James represents the way many of us view ourselves and where we are in our lives. “It is my weaknesses that are holding me back,” we tell ourselves. “If I fix my weak links, nothing would stand in the way of my success.”
We are trained to think this way. At least as far back as our elementary school years, we receive report cards that deem us “outstanding,” “satisfactory,” or “needs improvement” in any number of subjects. If, for example, we earn outstanding marks in math and science, satisfactory in reading and needs improvement in writing, the emphasis is placed on improving our writing skills. The system conditions us to focus on our weaknesses, and we carry that mindset into our adult lives rather than leading with your strengths.
What if instead of beating ourselves up for who we are not, we chose to embrace who we are? What if by focusing on your greatest areas of strength, you could find creative ways to overcome the areas of your performance that “need improvement”? We are not talking about tolerating mediocrity. We are suggesting that by becoming intimately acquainted with your unique areas of innate strength, you can be far more intentional and strategic in the way you approach performance improvement.
A great book, on leading with your strengths, is Strengths Based Leadership, by Tom Rath and Barry Conchie of the Gallup organization, which presents the concept as an equation: Strength=talent+skills+knowledge. Skills and knowledge can be acquired, but talents are naturally occurring ways of thinking, feeling, and doing. To turn our strengths into excellence, we must know what our talents are and then hone them with knowledge and skills. When we do that, we can tap into our signature strengths and go “into the zone,” that place where time is irrelevant, you do your very best work, and you anticipate what has to be done before others do. Even if the work leaves you physically tired, you emerge from the zone feeling energized, refreshed, and, yes, strong.
Leading with your strengths – Get to know yourself
You can’t tap into your signature strengths until you know what they are. Fortunately, we can easily access a pair of highly effective, evidence-based strength assessments: the VIA (Values in Action) Inventory of Strengths survey (free, but registration required), and Gallup’s Strengths Based Leadership assessment at strengths.gallup.com. To use the Gallup online tool, you must have an unused access code included with Strengths Based Leadership.
The VIA survey measures strengths of character, while the Gallup assessment identifies your top five strengths related to the ways you work and engage others while pursuing your goals. Together, the assessments reveal powerful insights about your way of being and doing in the world. This knowledge can lead to greater self-awareness, increased social intelligence, and, ultimately, stronger executive presence.
Understanding what our strengths are, and how to best use them, enhances our ability to get things done and dramatically improves our capacity to work creatively and collaboratively. Traditional time management is constrained by the number of clock ticks in our workweek. Leveraging our strengths allows us to think in terms of energy management, which is far less constraining. Your quality of life, professionally and personally, begins to improve the moment you start thinking, feeling, and behaving in alignment with your strengths.
The process begins with small, intentional tweaks. Think about adjusting your daily routine so you can invest 5% to 10% more of your time and energy in ways that better exercise your strengths. As CPAs, we understand the power of compound interest when dealing with money. A 10% adjustment to our daily schedule can be similarly powerful as the benefits of increased energy and momentum accrue and compound over time.
Leading with your strengths – Strengths-based leadership
So what does any of this have to do with leadership? The late Donald Clifton, considered the father of strengths psychology, summed it up this way: “A leader needs to know his strengths as a carpenter knows his tools or as a physician knows the instruments at her disposal. What great leaders have in common is that each truly knows his or her strengths—and can call on the right strength at the right time.”
Great leaders also earn and maintain the trust of their teams. Author Patrick Lencioni, in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, writes about a concept called vulnerability-based trust. In this model, leaders reveal their weaknesses as well as their strengths to the members of their team. Not only does this build trust in and of itself, it gives other members of the team permission to be similarly vulnerable. Great leaders understand that they don’t need to be well-rounded but that their teams do.
In an environment where leadership is shifting from “command and control” to what we like to call “connect and collaborate,” the need for self-aware, authentic leadership cannot be overemphasized. A leader preoccupied with authority, perception, and image is simply incompatible with a Twitter and Facebook world that magnifies the importance of authenticity and quickly—and dramatically—exposes the disingenuous. The call to action for emerging leaders is to dig deep, learn our strengths, and use them to improve ourselves, elevate those around us, change the way we work, and enhance our enjoyment of life.
Take the challenge. Let the members of your team see who you truly are. They will love you for it.