Rethinking Strength Based Development

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Strength based development has been the dominant leadership development paradigm for a long time now. Its appeal is definitely powerful – I remember the time I took the Gallup Strengthfinder test and was mesmerized by its appeal and optimism. To be fair, I also found positive applications of the same in my worklife. In particular the tenets that make most sense are

  • Attempting to fix our weaknesses is hard work with limited returns
  • It is our strengths that have the leverage to move us to exceptional levels of performance

And hence the thrust on recruiting, developing and managing around employee strengths to build an ‘excellent’ organization.

But having run a business for over 5 years now, I do believe that the strength based development framework may be too simplistic and ignore a complex set of issues that running any dynamic business encompasses. Infact, focusing only on strengths may create a fresh set of problems centered around inertia and an inability to face ground business realities.

Specifically, I see myself questioning the following

  • Does strength based development lead to a ‘leadership complacency’ where the leader stays within his comfort zone and lacks the versatility to lead in an uncertain, dynamic world? In a narrowly defined stable environment, it’s the best thing to keep playing to your strength, but what if the playing field itself changes and your ‘one big strength’ becomes irrelevant, and worse yet, you have not developed yourself to keep adapting and building ‘new strengths’?
  • Is a leadership group which has been groomed based on an accentuation of their positives, resilient enough in the face of adversity and challenges? Can they reinvent themselves and redeploy efforts when circumstances change and motivate an entire organization to do so?
  • Are we not creating a homogeneous set of leaders at the senior level with similar outlooks, thus holding back the larger benefits of diversity?

Overall, while a strength based development strategy may be relevant for individuals in the talent pipeline, for the leadership team of an organization in a dynamic environment, it may need some rethink.  Just as organisations fail when they rely on the success formula that historically worked, leaders run into trouble when they assume their current strengths will always outdo their rivals. Bob Kaplan and Rob Kaiser argue in “The Versatile Leader” that a reliance on strengths produces a lopsided leadership outlook that makes for poor strategic decision making and misguided implementation.

Strengths have the potential for excellence – especially when used judiciously by leaders to build their teams by focusing time on best people, celebrating successes and building on established talent. But, I believe they also have the potential to skew our overall leadership priorities in a particular direction. What leaders in today’s business reality increasingly need is versatility and the objectivity to change, adapt and grow.