Should Leadership Development Eliminate Weaknesses or Exploit Strengths?
By David Gruder
The importance of leadership development in business success is no longer debated. Leading leadership consultants like Ken Blanchard, John Maxwell, Stephen Covey and Marshall Goldsmith agree that top-notch leadership development is essential for seasoned executives as budding talent, when building and sustaining high performing organizations.
Of all the executive development areas, EQ (Emotional Intelligence) appears to have become the most universally endorsed. And for good reason. As Travis Bradbury of Forbes puts it, “EQ skills empower people to deal with anyone, in any situation.” As a clinical and organizational development psychologist who has been a leader development mentor and trainer since the 1980s, I agree with him.
The question is, which EQ skills are the most useful to focus on in leadership upgrade initiatives? The most obvious answer is, whichever skills a particular leader would most benefit from developing. But what’s the menu of EQ stills development options? And even more to the point, is it better to focus on developing a leader’s weaker EQ area or on exploiting their EQ strengths?
Miranda Kennett of Management Today talks about “a seismic shift in the leadership development world away from concentrating on weaknesses (or ‘development opportunities’, as they were euphemistically termed) to focus on identifying and exploiting our strengths.” This trend is based on the belief that developing weaknesses isn’t a unsuccessful strategy, but that focusing on our inadequacies is depressing. Kennett goes on to assert that “since we can’t build on weaknesses we’re better off spending our energy on making the most of our strengths.”
Her position parallels the Positive Psychology movement’s position: accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative. Don’t go delving into dark waters. Keep your attention on the sunny side of the street.
Yet, other leadership experts, such as my colleague Hugh Ballou, stress the importance of discovering your leadership gaps because those gaps limit leadership effectiveness at best and create damage at worst. Ballou’s position has parallels in the field of psychology as well. In fact, one of my long-time sayings is that “leaders lead at the level of their psychological limitations instead of their business’s highest intentions.”
So, which is it: “Illuminate the negative” as my colleague David Corbin puts it, by understanding and fixing the behaviors that are holding us back, as Marshall Goldsmith’s best-selling book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There is all about? Or focus on the “power of positive thinking” as Napoleon Hill advocates in his classic book “Think and Grow Rich,” and his many adherents passionately advocate?
Since I was a teenager I have been fascinated by our tendency as human beings to turn both/and into either/or. Whether in politics, religion, or personal development. Similarly, with leader development is it truly prudent to play to our strengths and sidestep our gaps?
All of us have natural strengths, acquired strengths, acknowledged gaps and hidden gaps.
My experience is that the leaders who become the most effective and fulfilled are the ones who pay attention to all four of these areas:
They have taken ownership of their natural strengths, they make the most of them, and they look for opportunities to further refine their capacity to utilize these.
They have the courage to uncover the leadership gaps they didn’t know they have and they make strategic decisions about which they will turn into acquired strengths, and which they will make sure that others on the leader team have instead.
Kennett’s notion that it’s not a good idea to address our weaknesses because doing this is depressing is, from my perspective, a kind of EQ deficit. A leader who can’t look honestly at their gaps without getting depressed lacks self-esteem. Leaders with self-esteem deficits tend to be ineffective wimps or ineffective egotists/tyrants. In other words, a leader who can’t look upon his or her deficits with open eyes, and yet without shame, will never become sustainably effective or sustainably happy in being a leader.
So, yes, leadership development is absolutely vital to business success. Yes, EQ skills are absolutely essential to leadership effectiveness. And yes, EQ includes becoming masterful in how we utilize our natural strengths, in how we turn well-selected gaps we have into acquired strengths, and in who we surround ourselves with that have the rest of the strengths our business needs to succeed.
Stop paying attention to the “experts” who advocate ignoring your gaps. Don’t settle for those who lack the expertise to help you further upgrade the usefulness of your natural and acquired strengths. And don’t waste your money on ones without the wisdom to help you discern which of your gaps to fill yourself versus which ones to bring others onto your team to fill.
You wouldn’t have made it all the way through this article unless you’re truly committed to your leadership effectiveness and your business’s success. You’d therefore be wisest to insist on utilizing only those leader development resources who can brilliantly help you in all of these areas, not just with some of them.
David Gruder is a legacy faculty member of CEO Space; he’s a keynote speaker and trainer.
You’ll have ample opportunity to dine with David as well as have private meetings for one-on-one consulting with him at CEO Space.