Think Leadership Ideas

Resist Mediocrity - Leadership Strengths

Do you truly want to rise above average? Do you want to accelerate achievement?

A strengths focus is critical to fostering excellence and avoiding mediocrity - for yourself and your organization.

Focus on strengths, not weaknesses. Most people have been introduced to the idea that they should emphasize building on their strengths rather than overcoming their weaknesses. A formula I share in coaching is, put 80 percent of your effort towards developing strengths, and the remaining 20 percent on managing shortcomings (unless, of course, a particular weakness is making “the wheels come off”). However, what I observe is that most individuals and companies still approach development and performance management by identifying an individual’s relative weaknesses and then trying to shore them up.

If you have a problem that's holding you back, by all means, attend to it, and make sure that you overcome it. But for the most part, use the majority of your energy to polish your strengths. This is how you overcome mediocrity - becoming exceptional at what you do well, rather than trying to be adequate in everything.

Begin, of course, with identifying strengths. Innumerable instruments exist (such as the Meyers Briggs Type Indicator or StrengthsFinder) and if used properly they can be helpful. However you can get a very good read of your strengths by listing all of the answers you can think of for each of following questions: What do you like to do? What do you feel compelled to do? What do you think you do well? What do other people say that you do well? Items that appear on all four lists will clearly be strengths.

Once strengths are identified, your development time and energy is best invested on those strengths in areas reflecting your passions and that have value to others in the marketplace. You develop high performance in your area of strengths the same way high performance is developed in any field or domain: practice, practice, practice. And that means practice with feedback. Practice with feedback is how Tiger Woods takes raw talent and turns it into world class performance.

Beyond simple identification and development of strengths, here are five critical actions necessary for maximizing the value of your strengths...

Embed strengths in your life. The odds for success and satisfaction in work and life increase dramatically if you can use your strengths every day. Indeed, the Gallup Organization found that the answer to the question, “At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day” (rated on a five-point scale) is one of 12 essential elements correlated with productivity, profitability, employee retention, and customer satisfaction.

It pays to seek a role in an organization, a lifestyle, or situation where you have the opportunity to use your strengths regularly. Likewise, effective organizations learn to recruit, hire, and deploy people in ways so their strengths can be used daily to advance the company’s goals.

Leverage your strengths. To gain influence and enhance leadership, leverage your strengths using consistency, congruence, and coherence. Consistency in using your strengths every day communicates dependability; people know exactly what to expect. Congruence is walking the talk - that the different parts of your life, the things that you communicate, and the way that you communicate them, all appear in agreement. Congruence communicates authenticity. Consistency and congruence become powerful with the addition of coherence - i.e. that the parts of your life hang together and create a story about who you are and what you are accomplishing.

Leveraging you strengths means using them consistently and congruently so your actions over time create a narrative of success - one that communicates meaning.

Know your shadow. The very strengths that propel you to success in one circumstance often get in the way when circumstances change. The brighter the light, the deeper the shadow - the more a particular strength makes you shine, the more it will have a “dark side” that will undermine your success (e.g., a professional who’s great strength is managing details, but who undermines his reports by micromanagement). Especially for mature leaders, it's not weaknesses that cause problems, rather it's overused strengths that create barriers to advancement or lead to tragic downfalls.
Accurate self-assessment, good feedback, and a little bit of humility are essential ingredients to avoiding situations where your strengths get in the way.

Transcend your strengths. To lead with strengths without overusing them, and lead successfully in changing circumstances, requires learning to venture successfully outside of your comfort zone. It requires growth and maturity.

Your strength may be patience, but sometimes you need to act boldly. Perhaps your strength is quick analysis, but sometimes you just need to facilitate a process that brings others along and fosters buy-in. Savvy leaders play to their strengths, but they acquire a wide array of skills and qualities that are needed to do the right thing at the right time.

Help others develop their strengths. Is there anything that will make more of a difference in your organization? ...or your family, or community? Exceptional leaders empower others to focus, to develop, to embed, to leverage and transcend their strengths. They use language that communicates strengths-based thinking. They help others find places to use their strengths every day. In return their organizations thrive, their own careers are advanced, and their own lives are enriched.

by Tom Stevens (c)2009
Tom Stevens helps leaders create and sustain exceptional organizations. To contact him, visit or call 800 727-9788

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