Unpicking the strengths myth

The current emphasis on strengths has fundamentally discouraged people from challenging themselves to become better leaders, argue James M Kouzes and Parry Z Posner, authors of Learning Leadership: The Five Fundamentals of Becoming an Exemplary Leader

For millennia, people have been searching for a magic formula or elixir that explains leadership success: from ancient literature on leadership that searched for the individual kissed by the gods (Charisma) to historical ‘great man approaches’ (already limited by gender bias). However, the current fascination is with the concept of ‘strengths’.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the notion that there are certain skills, knowledge, and attitudes that produce higher levels of performance in a task, whether it’s sales, engineering, nursing, or hospitality. Leadership is required of all professions, and it has its own set of skills and abilities. So far, so good. But the strengths approach has been misapplied to mean that you should only undertake tasks in which you are strong, and avoid wasting your time attending to your weaknesses; in areas where you don’t have natural talent, you or your organisation should assign tasks to other people.

The emphasis on strengths has fundamentally discouraged people from challenging themselves to become better leaders. That’s not to say that people shouldn’t attend to their strengths, nor that they are not happier and more successful when using their strengths at work and in other aspects of their lives. But as it stands, they can just throw up their hands and say ‘well, envisioning the future just isn’t a strength of mine, so I’m not going to become very good at it’ or ‘I’m not very comfortable letting people know how much I appreciate their accomplishments, so I won’t bother’. 

First, ignoring feedback about things you’re not good at is inconsistent with a lot of research on learning. Second, it’s not very motivating to tell people to give up before they even start, or when things don’t go as well as expected the first time they try them. Finally, this thinking is impractical: organisations can’t bring in a new person every time someone makes a mistake or there’s a new challenge that someone initially doesn’t have the skills and abilities to handle.

Over all the years we’ve been researching leadership, we’ve consistently found that adversity and uncertainty characterise every personal-best leadership experience. Typically, they’re challenges people have never previously faced. When confronting things they haven’t done before, people often have to develop new skills and overcome existing weaknesses and limitations. They make mistakes and may even feel incompetent. If people built only on strengths, they would likely not challenge themselves or their organisations. You simply cannot do your best without searching for new experiences, doing things you’ve never done, making mistakes, and learning from them. Challenge is an important stimulus for leadership and for learning.

Learning is the master skill

We have a question for you: ‘Have you ever learned a new game or a new sport?’ Undoubtedly, your answer is ‘yes’. We get that response every time we ask the question in our classes or leadership development programmes. Invariably every hand in the room goes up. 

We then ask ‘and how many of you got it perfect the first day you played it?’ People chuckle. No hands go up. No one ever gets it right the first time.

There was one occasion, however, when Urban Hilger, Jr raised his hand and said that on the very first day he went skiing he got it perfect. Naturally we were surprised and curious, so we asked Urban to tell us about the experience. Here’s what he said:

‘It was the first day of skiing classes. I skied all day long, and I didn’t fall down once. I was so elated. I felt so good. So I skied up to the instructor and I told him of my great day. You know what the ski instructor said? He told me, “personally, Urban, I think you had a lousy day”. I was stunned. “What do you mean lousy day? I thought the objective was to stand up on these boards, not fall down.” The ski instructor looked me straight in the eyes and replied, “Urban, if you’re not falling, you’re not learning”.’ 

Urban’s ski instructor understood that if you can stand up on your skis all day long the first time out, you’re only doing what you already know how to do and are not pushing yourself to try anything new and difficult. By definition, learning is about something you don’t already know. Those who do what they already know how to do may have lots of experience, but after a while they don’t get any better because they’re not learning anything new. 

Research has shown that teachers, for example, improve during their first five years in the field, as measured by student learning, according to University of Virginia psychology professor Daniel Willingham. He goes on to report that after five years their performance curve goes flat, and a teacher with 20 years of experience, on average, is no better or worse than a teacher with 10. ‘It appears that most teachers work on their teaching until it is above some threshold and they are satisfied with their proficiency,’ concludes Willington. The same might be said about many leaders. 

So ask yourself: ‘Are you pushing yourself to learn something new when it comes to leadership every day? Or, are you just doing what you already know how to do? Are you stretching yourself to go beyond your comfort zone — beyond what you do well enough — and engaging in activities that test you and build new skills?

‘Are you learning?’

This is an exclusive edited extract from Learning Leadership:  The Five Fundamentals of Becoming an Exemplary Leader, for Business Impact by James M Kouzes and Parry Z Posner (published by The Leadership Challenge, a Wiley Brand, 2016)

Further Reading

Daniel T Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What it Means for the Classroom (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009)

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