The Perils of Accentuating the Positive

A while back I wrote a post called “The Fallacy of Strength-based Leadership Development, which highlighted a Center for Creative Leadership study that showed that the skills that most managers are good at are not the ones organizations say they need. I also published a guest post by Brad Smart on the same topic, “Fix Management Weaknesses First”.

I’m sure you’ve heard the premise of the strength based movement (and it really is an almost cult-like movement), pioneered by Marcus Buckingham , Donald Clifton, Tom Rath, and Gallup. The idea is we should “discover our strengths”, play to those strengths, and don’t worry so much about fixing our weaknesses I’ve read Buckingham and Rath’s books, and they are compelling.

Although I had no research – only my own experience in working with hundreds of managers and executives – I’ve never really bought into the “leverage your strengths” movement. In the leadership development work I’ve done, weaknesses matter a lot – and if not addressed, can mean the end of the road for a promising high potential leader.

After I published that post, the author of a relatively new book called The Perils of Accentuating the Positive, Bob Kaiser, dropped a comment expressing his agreement and followed up with an offer to send me his book.

I just finished the book. Sure enough, what my gut told me has been validated by the work of fifteen different authors.

Each one of these authors is a respected expert in the field of leadership development – a “who’s who” of gurus, including Robert Eichinger, William Gentry, Robert Hogan, Robert Kaplan, Morgan McCall, Randall While, and the author, Robert Kaiser.

Most of them could cite solid (and somewhat boring) research that proves that overly focusing on your strengths and not developing your weaknesses is not only a dumb development and career strategy, it’s potentially disastrous for organizations.

Here’s why in a nutshell, according to the authors:

1. The “celebrate your strengths” manta is a feel-good, lazy way of side-stepping the hard work required to develop and be successful. It’s giving leaders “permission to stagnate”.

2. Successful leaders spend their entire lives learning things they know little about and improving skills they are weak at. Can you imagine telling a college graduate to “focus on the 5 things you’re really good at and you’ll have a great career”? Or telling your child “stick with the crayons, kid, you’ll never get better at anything else”. Of course not, the learning and development has only just begun, and it should never end. Continuous learning is essential to sustainable success.

3. Yes, we all have about 5 things that we’re really good at – and it makes sense to leverage those. But the research says successful leaders also work very hard at ALL the skills needed to be a successful leaders. They are great at about 5 things, and OK at the rest – with no glaring weaknesses.

4. Overly focusing on your strengths can actually be a leader’s downfall. CCL research has shown that executive “derailers” are actually overused strengths. That is, any strength, if used too much, turns into a weakness. For example, “action oriented”, if overdone, can turn into impatience, poor decisions, and inability to collaborate.

5. Your strengths may not be the ones your job or organization requires. In fact, that’s often the case, according to CCL research.

6. Finally, the authors even point to examples of businesses that have failed by ignoring weaknesses, and others that have succeeded by re-inventing themselves.

Is there value to being aware of your strengths and using them to be successful? Well sure, of course. But that’s only a piece of the development puzzle, and if misinterpreted, could even be a career killer.

I used to be ambivalent about the whole thing… now, after reading this; I have even more serious doubts about the strengths movement. Read the book, and I’ll bet you will too.

For more, here’s an article by the author in this month’s Chief Learning Officer magazine.