In the last few years, “strengths-based” leadership has become the Curly Washburn Solution of the day. You may recall that Washburn was the grizzled old cowboy played by Jack Palance in City Slickers.
Curly told the city slickers that there’s a secret of life and it’s “one thing” [Hold up index finger here.] “Strengths-based” leadership has become the one thing you could do that would not only improve team performance, but probably cure curvature of the spine and childhood obesity.
When we find something good there’s a tendency to a) pick the parts we like and ignore the rest and b) to see it as magic. There’s a predictable sequence of adoption.
A bunch of people adopt parts of the new idea uncritically. Simple diagnostic instruments (see StrengthsFinder) provide an armor of “science” to protect the concept. Criticism subsides.
Then some academic studies appear, debunking the magical properties of the concept. Bret Simmons wrote recently about one of those studies in a post titled “Strength-Based, Individual Leadership. How Does It Affect Your Team?”
This is a good time to step back, look at the strengths issue and drive a few stakes in the ground about what works and what doesn’t. Here goes.
Every boss has two jobs. One is accomplishing the mission through the team. That’s where a focus on team performance, rather than simply individual strengths pays dividends. The study that Bret discusses indicates that very thing.
But a boss’s other job is to care for their team members. One part of that is helping team members grow. And that’s where a focus on individual strengths can pay dividends. By helping individual team members develop their strengths, a boss can build the capacity and efficiency of the team.
There’s another issue, too. Most articles make the case for concentrating on strengths or concentrating on weaknesses. But the most effective bosses deal with both.
I’m channeling Peter Drucker on this, specifically advice he gave in his best book, The Effective Executive. The idea is to build on strengths and (wait for it) make weaknesses irrelevant.
You can make weaknesses irrelevant by turning them into strengths, at least in theory. In my experience, the best you can hope for is to get “good enough.”
You can also make weaknesses irrelevant by removing the need to a specific person to do the things they’re not good at. Maybe it doesn’t have to be done at all. Or, maybe someone else on the team can do it.
That’s where the “accomplish-the-mission” and the “care-for-the-people” objectives come together. It’s part of how effective bosses manage teams.
Boss’s Bottom Line
Help your people be more successful by helping them develop their strengths and make their weaknesses irrelevant.
Help your team be more successful by developing the most effective mix of task assignments.