I just kicked off a year-long leadership development academy for a group of 20 physicians members of an international medical academy. As part of the program, I administered an emotional intelligence self-assessment that opened many participants' eyes to their skills and development needs. A number of the participants asked me whether they should focus on developing their strengths or fixing their flaws.
The strengths approach to leadership development, popularized by writers Rath and Conchie, is anchored in positive psychology. Their foundational ideas assume that most people are not aware of their strengths. When people develop this awareness and invest time in enhancing them, it enhances their abilities, confidence, and satisfaction. By extension, this approach suggests focusing on fixing weaknesses and does not translate to a sustainable performance improvement. A critical aspect of this approach is leveraging others' strengths - recognizing that leaders cannot be good at everything.
Steve, a chief operations officer in a health system, is highly skilled as a project manager and ensures no detail slips through the cracks. However, because he is very good at this competency and enjoys doing it, he rarely thinks strategically about his organization, including longer-term planning and visioning. Given his level in his organization, Steve needs strategic thinking capabilities to perform his role. In developing his project management strengths, Steve might want to consider how he might become more aware of when to tap this strength. For example, a project management perspective might not be the best choice when identifying strategic opportunities and a new initiative vision. He could also consider tapping the strategic thinking capabilities of his second in charge, Maria.
The more traditional approach to leadership development emphasizes developing flaws or weaknesses. Leaders often identify the gap between their actual and desired behavior to determine what to grow. The leadership development plan then focuses on filling the gap by increasing your skill and confidence. In many cases, these deficits are created by overusing one's strengths. Overusing strengths can create lopsided leaders with substantial gaps in their knowledge or skill set. Often, the best way to identify these weaknesses is through developmental coaching and a 360-degree assessment.
Although Steve may never be an expert in strategic thinking, he could develop some necessary capabilities in this area to mitigate his weaknesses, enabling him to speak strategy to his boss, the CEO. To achieve this, he could allow his second in charge, Maria, to mentor him, read a good book on the topic, or engage trusted colleagues in practicing this skill.
I subscribe to a hybrid approach to development that embraces both methods. This approach assumes the importance of using your strengths and developing substantial weaknesses that could derail your career and limit your success. Further, it entails leveraging the talents of your leadership team to augment your weaker skills. In constructing their development plans, I often recommend that leaders identify one strength and one weakness.
Here are seven useful leadership development strategies to consider that combine the strength-based and deficit perspectives:
Successful leaders are intentional about their development and take consistent action over time to optimize their potential. Well-crafted leadership development plans include a balance of developing both strengths and weaknesses. By taking a balanced approach, leaders can ensure they are well-prepared for future roles.
Dr. Kevin Nourse has more than 25 years of experience coaching leaders who are experiencing transitions to thrive in their new or expanded roles. He is the founder of Nourse Leadership Strategies, a coaching and leadership development firm based in Southern California. For more information, contact Kevin at 310.715.8315 or email@example.com
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