Tuesday, March 24, 2009

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.


Anonymous said...

Great post, Dan and I couldn't agree more. I've got nothing against leveraging one's strengths and actually encourage clients to do it all the time. I think a lot of good coaching also focuses on calibrating the client's strengths - pointing out opportunities to either dial the strengths up or down.

That said, if a leader wants to take on more responsibilities, the weaknesses also need to be addressed. There are basic expectations that come with higher level roles. If you want to play at the next level, you have to master the skills required to be there whether or not your natural strengths match up with them.

The analogy that comes to mind is that I have two sons. The oldest is really strong on verbal skills and the youngest is really strong on math and science skills. They could both probably do OK in the world if they just play to their strengths. But, if they really want to achieve at the highest levels, the oldest is going to have to work on his math and the youngest is going to have to learn how to write.

(By the way, congrats on your latest well deserved accolade!)

Cheers -


Ask a Manager said...

Very interesting. I may get the book.

I've always taken the "focus on your strengths" thing as more "try to get yourself into a job that plays to those strengths" and less "don't worry about working on your weaknesses," but I could totally see that ending up translating into "my weaknesses don't need any attention."

Dan McCarthy said...

Scott -
Thanks, great point regarding bigger roles requiring new skills.

Dan McCarthy said...

Right, it's worth reading up on both sides of the debate.

BomiM said...

A much cliched term "the only constant in modern day life is change" is worth considering deeply to understand both, individual Leadership strengths as well as "opportunities for development" that are critical. The challenge lies in getting leadership to see their "opportunities" since the term "weakness" creates an instinctive repulsion.

Most anointed with the title of a leader would have earned it (the rest don't matter). They would have worked hard, sacrificed many aspects by devoting themselves completely to their career. Then comes the time when they enjoy their success, feeling confident or may be even over confident, leading to being a bit smug. Marshall Goldsmith's caution in What Got You Here Won't Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful is that don't get too comfortable, actually complacent is a more appropriate term. He reminds us that the very traits that enable us to get there, lead to our downfall if we refuse to pull up on our "opportunities to develop" building up to the next level. Every leader exhibits behavioral quirks and weaknesses, take on more weight and significance, as well as do more harm than they could when they were coming up. Marshall identifies the 20 most common shortcomings and helps with a seven-step procedure for improving without a complete personal makeover. Usually, making a small adjustment or simply stopping the negative behavior is all it takes.

But the first, big step is to acknowledge our own opportunities and there lies one of the biggest challenges towards true leadership.


Dan McCarthy said...

Bomi -
Thanks, good connection to Goldsmith's work. Many of those 20 behaviors are examples of "too much of a good thing" strenghts.

xabbu said...

Many that are deep into the strength based approach comment on why we wouldn't take Tiger Woods and make him a soccer player as he has strength in golfing and he should pursue that strength. But they fail to look at the multitude of strengths and weaknesses inside a person that make up "total" person. Tiger Woods is one of the best golfers of all time, if not the best. BUT - inside his game he too has weaknesses that if he does not work on will cost him. His length and creativity are both strengths, but without the rest of his game he would not score as well as he does. Last weekend his putting was not a strength - which I am sure he is working on this week to ensure he has a better tournament the next time he plays.
If we do not recognize, evaluate and work on our areas of weaknesses, we are being negligent to ourselves, our co-workers and our overall success in any business.

Dan McCarthy said...

Xabbu -
great example! He's great at some things, but couldn't win if he had any glaring weaknesses. Like John Daly. (:

I. Barry Goldberg said...

Well said, Dan.

The irony in this debate is in the very polarization of the two points of view. Overt dedication to a focus on one side or the other is in itself an overused strength.

As often as not in my client work, a balance is called for. Client's who do not understand how to use their strengths purposefully are often blindsided when a promotion or major project requires a different "flavor" of that strength. And ignoring the opportunities to get better is simple hubris.

Given our propensity to focus on the negative by default, when looking at 360 data for instance, it is often harder to get executives to sharpen skills that they already think will carry them.

Dan McCarthy said...

Barry -
Good points, and yes, I've had the same experience.

Dave McLean said...

Hi Dan:

Here's a op-ed article on the subject in today's Financial Times that implicates strength-based leadership for its role in the financial crisis. But there is a strong positive angle: a call for collaborative leadership.