What happens when leaders’ strengths fail them? In the last decade, leadership development experts have enthusiastically pushed to improve leadership strengths instead of addressing leaders’ weaknesses. This approach may have some success in growing individuals’ effectiveness, but it’s fundamentally flawed.
Strengths training and coaching have somewhat of a cult-like following among HR and coaching professionals. Leaders are encouraged to develop their unique strengths and focus on fortifying areas in which they’re naturally talented.
Amazon sells almost 8,000 books on the subject, including several bestsellers published by Gallup, whose StrengthsFinder assessment tool is now used by 1.6 million employees every year and 467 Fortune 500 companies.
From what I’ve observed in my work in some companies, even the word “weakness” has become politically incorrect. Staff is instead described as having strengths and “opportunities for growth” or “challenges.”
It’s easy to see why concentrating on leadership strengths is popular. It’s more enjoyable to hone in on innate strengths and avoid discussing weaknesses. But when strengths-oriented programs emphasize a single leadership area, they bypass others—usually to a manager’s detriment.
When strengths are overemphasized, they’re often overused.
“We’ve seen virtually every strength taken too far: confidence to the point of hubris, and humility to the point of diminishing oneself. We’ve seen vision drift into aimless dreaming, and focus narrow down to tunnel vision. Show us a strength and we’ll give you an example where its overuse has compromised performance and probably even derailed a career.”—Robert B. Kaiser and Robert E. Kaplan, “Don’t Let Your Strengths Become Your Weaknesses,” Harvard Business Review, April 04, 2013
Leaders’ Strengths: Too Much of a Good Thing
Doing too much of something is as much of a problem as doing too little of it. Most managers can point to a leader who takes things too far: the supportive boss who cuts people a little too much slack or the gifted operational director whose relentless focus on results leads to micromanaging. It can be extremely difficult to recognize these behaviors in yourself.