Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Fallacy of Strength-based Leadership Development

I’m not a big fan of the “Discover your strengths” school of leadership development. This is a concept made popular a few years ago my Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton. The idea is we should “discover our strengths”, play to those strengths, and don’t worry so much about fixing our weaknesses. Whenever I lead a session on development planning, someone always raises their hand and brings this up, and everyone nods their head in agreement.

The Center For Creative Leadership just released a study that basically says leaders aren’t so good at the thing that really matters the most: leading people. Here’s a summary:

Too Much of a Good Thing: Beware of Your Strengths
A Leadership Gap: When Strengths Don't Meet the Need
Are today's leaders equipped for tomorrow's challenges? Recent research from the Center for Creative Leadership shows a startling gap between the current strengths of leaders and the leadership skills and perspectives that are critical for success.

"CCL works with many clients seeking to build and extend the leadership capabilities in their organizations. In this context, we often hear concerns about developing new competencies and building leadership bench strength," says CCL's Jean Brittain Leslie. "We wondered how universal this concern is and what specific skills need to be improved upon."

Leslie and her CCL colleague, Sylvester Taylor, examined data from more than 438,000 individuals in 7,500 organizations, including many Fortune 500 companies. All data were collected from June 2000 through November 2004 using CCL's Benchmarks®, a leadership development assessment tool that rates skill levels of 16 key leadership competencies. Through the Benchmarks process, participants learn how others perceive their strengths and development needs, how they compare with similar managers in other organizations, and how to focus on skills and perspectives critical to being effective and successful.

Looking at the data, Leslie and Taylor sought to understand two key issues: What leadership skills and perspectives are critical for success? How strong are today's leaders in these critical skills and perspectives?

Leader Success Profile
The ability to lead employees was rated the most important competency for success. This reflects a leader's ability to direct and motivate others, to judiciously use power, to develop others, and exhibit organizational values. Eight-nine percent of the bosses in the database rank this as a top skill for leaders in the organization.

Seven additional skills and perspectives were ranked as important by a majority of the bosses:
Resourcefulness (81 percent)
Decisiveness (75 percent)
Managing change (69 percent)
Straightforwardness and composure (68 percent)
Building and mending relationships (67 percent)
Doing whatever it takes (67 percent)
Employing a participative management style (64 percent)

"Collectively, these eight competencies represent critical skills for success in organizations," says Taylor, adding that most individuals, regardless of level, gender or age, ranked the importance of these characteristics similarly. "This means that most people think about many of the components of leadership in the same way."

Current Bench Strength
Unfortunately, today's leaders lack strength in many of the skills deemed important for success.

Three of the top eight skills in importance were not among the top eight in terms of strength of today's leaders. The ability to lead employees - the competency rated most important for success - placed 15th out of the 16 total competencies. The other two were Change Management - using effective strategies to manage and facilitate change, and Building Relationships - negotiating work problems effectively and influencing without authority.

What strengths do today's leaders posses? Our data suggest that individuals are better at mastering new technical or business knowledge, displaying warmth and good humor and demonstrating respect for varying backgrounds and differences.

Notably, individuals who were considered top performers (using a separate measure of performance) were consistently viewed as better at all of the sixteen leadership competencies.

Implications: A Leadership Gap
Today's organizations face a gap between the skills they require and the capabilities of their leadership. While all sixteen competencies contribute to effective leadership, the skills considered as strengths are not the most critical for success in today's organizations. Instead, the skills deemed most important - most notably the ability to lead employees - are decided weaknesses of today's leader population.

"Our findings raise critical questions for individuals and organizations about the quality of leadership," says Leslie. "The challenge is to identify the most critical leadership skills needed in your organization and measure the leadership gap. Then you can make focused development a top priority.

My take:
I’d suggest that weaknesses – especially in areas are determined to be the most important to a leader’s or organization’s success – can’t be ignored. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be aware of and leverage your strengths – just don’t kid yourself thinking you can be successful in spite of your inability to lead people.


Breanne said...

I wrote a similar blog yesterday. Check it out at

Dan McCarthy said...

Breanne - I read your post - outstanding! Nice blog, too.

Adaptable Leadership - Building Leaders for Changing Times said...

I couldn't agree more. A great leader knows when to play to their strengths and knows when to shore up weaknesses. If leaders are going to be adaptable, and they must, they better be prepared to change based on their operating environment.

Matthias said...

Dear Dan

I am a big fan of the "strengths philosophy" but nevertheless, I find your post very interesting (so much indeed that I have put a link to it on my blog,

Allow me to comment the following, though:

In my oppinion, strengths-based leadership does not not suggest to ignore weaknesses. It rather suggests to dedicate more of your time and energy to developing your strengths rather than fixing your weaknesses. But if your weaknesses become a major problem for your career, the strengths philosophy clearly recommends one of three activities:
1) compensate your weakness with a talent that may come close to where your weak talent is failing on you. For example, use Relator to build your network if you are weak on Woo.
2) develop a compensatory system, like using time management tools (e.g. Outlook, ToDo lists) if you are unorganized.
3) Build on the strengths of your colleagues and employees to compensate your weaknesses.

I found this advise quite useful in my daily work as a manager.


Matthias said...

Dan, I forgot to ask you one question:

you quote Mrs. Leslie saying "The challenge is to identify the most critical leadership skills needed in your organization and measure the leadership gap. Then you can make focused development a top priority."

What advise would you give to identify "the most critical leadership skills"? In your experience, on what factors or circumstances does it depend whether one skill is more necessary than another?


Dan McCarthy said...

Matthias –

Thanks for stopping by. I see from your blog and profile that you are a strong supporter of the strength movement, and I do appreciate your views.
The discipline of leadership development has never been black and white, so there will always be room for new approaches and different opinions.

As for your question “What advise would you give to identify "the most critical leadership skills"? In your experience, on what factors or circumstances does it depend whether one skill is more necessary than another?”

My approach is to develop a leadership competency model where the most critical competencies are determined by the current and future needs of the business. So it’s all about what the role and environment demands, and will vary. But at the end of the day, leadership is leadership, regardless of the role. Company specific models just help us prioritize.

Anonymous said...

Anyone interested in a research-based counter argument to the strength-based leadership should check out The Perils of Accentuating the Positive (Hogan Press, 2009).

Hopefully, business will rethink
reliance on strengths as it picks itself and dusts itself off after the current bust we're experience.

Some thoughts on this:

Harvard Business Review:

Business Leadership Review:

The Science of Personality:

Solution Focused Change:

Dan McCarthy said...

Dave -
Thanks for the additional reading!

Anonymous said...

Great point, Dan. There was an interesting editorial in the current special issue of CLO magazine dedicated to leadership development. The editorial tied enthusiasm for "maximize strengths" with the current economic crisis. It made a lot of sense.

Dan McCarthy said...

Gadfly -
Now that's scary. Thanks.

Joe said...

I agree with both assessments, Strength Finders and Dan. I don't feel that what is being compared is an apples to apples comparison. I view strength finders as more of a motivational aspect. For instance, my strongest area in strength finders is competition. I am motivated by winning. In that, I find that if I am able to see the situation as a winning situation, I might respond in various ways: lead people, manage change, etc. Those items are skills that need to be honed and nurtured. It would be extremely difficult for me to change my motivation from competition, to belief. But I can certainly increase my skills at being decisive, managing change, etc. They are two different things. Maybe I need to read up more on Strength-based Leadership, but I think that the foundation has been missed. It is hard to change what motivates you, it is easier to increase your skills (weak or strong).


douglas said...

As someone who does advocate the strengths movement there are a couple of points I'd like to draw your attention to. The first is that Marcus Buckingham and the Gallup organisation parted ways but unfortunately Marcus is way better at marketing himself and as a result has made a very one-sided approach to the strengths movement popular. In Donald Clifton's views of discovering and leveraging your strengths it was made very clear that weaknesses are not to be ignored but the potential for your biggest contribution lies in those things that naturally make sense to you and give you an edge up over others. Strategies for managing around your weaknesses and forming complimentary partnerships with those who are naturally better at some things than you are crucial. There is no way that humans have the capacity to be perfectly well rounded in all areas. Knowing and understanding your unique contribution frees you up to lend your strengths to those around you and at the same time borrow from others where they are stronger.

When approaching strengths-based leadership, starting with understanding your "strengths profile" is simply step one. then follows dedication to understand that based on your unique way of functioning, how do you meet the requirements of a leadership role. Leading from your strengths based on the strengths of those you lead.

A lack of the deeper aspects and the nuances of the StrengthFinder concept is actual what prevents people from experiencing the full benefit of this programme. It is not merely about what energises you (which is Marcus' approach)It is just as much about understanding the natural patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviours through which you will always filter the world and then through effort, adding skill, knowledge and experience, developing your natural tendencies into areas where you have the capacity to perform at levels of personal excellence. Which ever "model" of leadership, mentorship, workmanship you choose to follow, it will always only make sense to you as an individual when you perceive it through your unique filters. That is the language that the strengthsFinder assessment seeks to give to people. Meeting the needs of strengths-based leadership goes far beyond the information contained in the book of the same title.
The problem lies not in the strengths finder concept but in the perception of people who are expecting to read a book containing that magical ingredient to allowing them to step into their potential.
Blood sweat and tears is the only way to create the future but at least you'll be equipped to start from a sure foundation if you know what "raw material" you start with.

Furthermore I'd like to ask, have any of you actually sat down with a strengths performance coach to discuss your strengths profile and tried to access the nuances of your profile rather than looking at five brief descriptions of a group of talents?
There are no short cuts to understanding the complex workings of humans...