Developing potential? Focus on strengths and shortcomings

For over a decade, the focus of leadership and professional development has been to emphasize people’s strengths rather than concentrate on weaknesses. The concept was popularized by Gallup researchers and led to a series of StrengthsFinder books and tools. For those unfamiliar, the StrengthsFinder is an assessment that reveals dominant “themes” that help people focus on their strengths and abilities and center their work and lives on them. The premise is that it makes more sense to leverage strengths and talents versus trying to address shortcomings.

Peter Drucker, a management consultant, professor, and writer, talked about leveraging strengths as early as the 50s. Drucker, hailed by Business Week as the “man who invented management,” was quick to point out that it made no sense to hire someone for a set of skills and then immediately identify what they needed to improve and expecting them to do that. From Drucker’s standpoint, strengths made the difference.

I’m a proponent of focusing on strengths. Aligning people with jobs and situations that play to their strengths is powerful. Tapping into the skills and talents that people bring to the table and learning to leverage and even enhance those skills can lead to great success. While a supporter of leveraging strengths, I have been guilty of doing the exact opposite. I’ve tried to fit a square peg into a round hole and haven’t had much success in doing so. I’ve tried to develop others by focusing on skill sets that were clearly shortcomings. This left both parties frustrated and feeling like failures.

My concern is that the pendulum has swung so far in the strengths direction that the shortcoming side of the equation is overlooked. These weaknesses can be career-limiting. They may be a requirement for success in a specific organization or in a particular role. Conversely, there are some who only focus on the negative. It is easier for these individuals to identify what didn’t work versus commenting on what was right. A project debrief is about beating up the team for “should haves” or “why didn’t we” situations versus discussing what went well so that it can be repeated in the future.

I have also been guilty of this, especially when it comes to my own development. My inner critic wants to examine what I should have done differently versus what I did well. I tend to focus on how to do more, do better, change, or adjust. This isn’t always a bad thing. This inner critic has created a drive that has led the way to success on a number of occasions. But, where that inner critic gets in the way is when it blocks the examination of what went well and how best to leverage that and/or repeat it in the future. So, much like the focus on strengths-only, the tendency to focus on gaps-only doesn’t provide the complete picture.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to develop potential is to focus on BOTH leveraging strengths as well as addressing shortcomings. If a fatal flaw exists that prevents someone from being successful, focusing on strengths isn’t helpful. Addressing the fatal flaw is the starting point. If the focus is only on weaknesses or what didn’t work, the opportunity to build on successes is lost. So, leveraging strengths and closing development gaps work in tandem in overall performance and development efforts.

When development planning (for yourself or in supporting others), the following questions can be useful in helping leaders think about both strengths AND development needs.


Reflect on the following…
• What are your strengths…your areas of skill and expertise? How do you know? How have these been confirmed over time?
• How are your strengths used in your current role? What percentage of your day is spent using your strengths? How can you increase that percentage?
• How can you leverage your strengths to maximize results?


Reflect on the following…
• What are some development needs or shortcomings? How do you know? How have these been confirmed?
• How have your shortcomings manifested themselves in your current role? What percentage of your day is spent trying to overcome your weaknesses?
• What are the likely consequences if you choose to do nothing to address these gaps?

Development planning

Reflect on the following…
• How can you build on your strengths and address the development gaps you’ve identified?
• What resources and/or support do you need?
• What do you want to do? Why?
• What next steps can you take to build your strengths?
• What next steps can you take to address your development gaps?

So when you look at your own leadership development (or look to guide the development efforts of those around you), remember to focus on enhancing strengths and identifying improvement opportunities. Don’t ignore the gaps, but don’t forget to leverage what makes you successful.

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