The Gallup Management Journal has a good interview with Tom Rath and Barry Conchie, authors of Strengths-Based Leadership, about some of their key findings from the book. Here’s one that stands out and should be encouraging: effective leaders don’t try to be someone else or even become well-rounded; instead, they know their strengths and focus on leading from those — which means that there are all sorts of different ways to lead. (Note: That doesn’t mean you can just do anything and be effective; the key point is that your particular style emerges from your strengths, not from a random or uninformed decision.)
It looks like you have to register to read the whole thing, but here are a few key highlights.
1. Concentrate on developing your talents into strengths, not fixing weaknesses or imitating others:
Here are some questions that leaders often ask themselves: How can I fix my weaknesses to be a more complete leader? How can I emulate the traits of the great leaders who preceded me? What should I focus on — vision or strategy? Here is the answer to all those questions: Don’t bother.
Concentrating on those issues will only distract you from the most important aspect of leadership: your natural talents, which can be developed into strengths. According to Tom Rath and Barry Conchie, coauthors of Strengths Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow, strengths are what make leaders great.
We all have natural talents, of course, but the greatest leaders are highly aware of theirs. They know what they’re good at and spend countless hours making themselves better at what they do best. They don’t try to make themselves well-rounded or like some other leader. Nor do they devote their energies solely to the relentless pursuit of strategy, vision, or any other ideal. And what they don’t do well, they hire someone else to do.
2. If you’ve taken the “Strengths Finder” test to examine your talent themes, these themes don’t of themselves say anything about whether you can be an effective leader. You lead effectively by harnessing your unique talents, whatever they may be:
GMJ: Of the thirty-four talent themes that the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment identifies, which are the most common among great leaders?
Barry Conchie: I’ve got a problem with the question.
Conchie: There is no single characteristic or set of characteristics that would enable us to determine an effective leader. The most effective leaders are the ones who figure out how best to use what they’ve got. So it matters less what the strengths are in terms of the themes; what’s key is that the leaders understand the strengths they have, how those strengths help them to be effective, and that they use strategies and methods to deploy their strengths to the greatest effect
Rath: I think that from all the research that Gallup’s done on leadership over the last three or four decades, the broadest discovery is that there is no universal set of talents that all leaders have in common. As we looked through these data and ran through hundreds of transcripts and individual interviews, we were struck by just how different all these leaders are.
If you were to sit down with each of the four leaders we featured in the book [Brad Anderson, vice chairman and CEO of Best Buy; Wendy Kopp, CEO and founder of Teach For America; Simon Cooper, president and CEO, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, LLC; and Mervyn Davies, chairman, Standard Chartered Bank], you’d notice that they do things very differently based on their strong awareness of their unique talents.
I expand about this a bit more in my post “Leading From Your Strengths May Look Unusual,” where I quote from their chapter on Brad Anderson’s unique leadership style at Best Buy.
I would want to qualify one thing from their point here, though. While you can lead effectively with any of the talent themes identified by the Strengths Finder test, there are two qualities (not measured by the test) which, following Marcus Buckingham (see his excellent discussion in The One Thing You Need to Know: … About Great Managing, Great Leading, and Sustained Individual Success), I would argue are essential to leadership. The qualities are optimism and ego.
“Ego” doesn’t have to have the negative connotations we often associate with it; it simply means you believe that you are the one to lead and are fiercely committed to the task. Optimism is necessary because the essence of leadership is to rally people to a better future, and nobody will want to follow someone who doesn’t believe that they can make the future better. (Thinking that you can’t make a difference would be contrary to the nature of leadership altogether — where are you leading if not to someplace better?)
Understanding the nature of leadership as rallying people to a better future also enables you to focus on your strengths more effectively. For, as I talk about in my post “What Does a Leader Do?,” you don’t have to focus on developing long lists of recommended attributes for leaders when you know the core of the matter. Instead, focus on the core, and develop your own unique strengths.
3. Seeking to be well-rounded leads to mediocrity:
GMJ: You wrote: “If you spend your life trying to be good at everything, you will never be great at anything. While our society encourages us to be well-rounded, this approach inadvertently breeds mediocrity.” Why is that?
Conchie: The great leaders we’ve studied are not well-rounded individuals. They have not become world-class leaders by being average or above-average in different aspects of leadership. They’ve become world-class in a relatively limited number of areas of leadership. They’ve recognized not only their strengths but their deficiencies, and they’ve successfully identified others who compensate for those deficiencies.
The concept of well-roundedness is illusory. It might sound desirable from a developmental perspective, but really all that happens when people try to fix their weaknesses is that they spend inordinate amounts of time trying to become marginally better in an area that will never be particularly strong for them. So they’ll get far less of a return by trying to shore up relatively mediocre capabilities because they’ll probably always be below average in those areas. Leadership is not a construct of well-rounded attributes; it’s nearly always the consequence of some pretty incisive talents that are relatively specific and slightly narrow in focus being leveraged to the maximum.