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.