Can You Take Your Strengths Too Far?

For the past decade, leaders have been encouraged to focus on developing their strengths rather than always gravitating to working on a weakness. But is this too much of a good thing? Lately, a number of business thinkers have suggested so.

It's tempting for those of us strongly committed to developing leadership strengths to ignore such dissent on the grounds that any new practice will attract critics. But the debate has practical significance to leaders. How should a hard-driving executive respond when given high scores for his ability to drive for results but low scores on building strong relationships with peers and subordinates? Is this evidence that he's taken his strength too far?

We don't think so. We would absolutely advise this person to keep driving for results; we suspect that his intense drive is what got him this far in the organization. But we don't see this as a zero sum game — we don't think he needs to stop doing one thing to start doing something else. So we'd also recommend he develop additional strengths in relating to people.

Like many of those who are raising doubts about the limits of developing leadership strengths — as Robert E. Kaplan and Robert Kaiser have done in the pages of HBR, and more recently Tony Schwartz has done on this site, we believe that a single strength by itself doesn't serve anyone well. A leader needs several strengths to succeed. And balance is required. Strengths in combination are far more powerful than any one alone, our research has confirmed. Our data show, in fact, that possessing five strengths is a surefooted way to become an exceptional leader. One-trick ponies don't last long in the center ring.

We also strongly agree with them that serious weaknesses should not be ignored. We've called these "fatal flaws," and we certainly advise people to fix them first. That's critical for the roughly one-quarter of leaders our data tell us appear to have such serious defects. We submit, however, that the rest should be working on their strengths.

People can and do behave inappropriately — and they do things to excess. In his blog, Schwartz describes how he learned that his own unbridled candor was hurtful and unproductive. Kaplan and Kaiser similarly described how either "forceful" or "enabling" behaviors could be taken too far and have negative consequences. They observed that if a leader overuses the "forceful" strength by being exceedingly directive — always taking charge, making every decision, and constantly pushing people — the leader's effectiveness diminishes. That's a conclusion that we suspect most would accept. And so do we. They also observed that a leader who is too cautious, gentle, understanding, mild-mannered, and almost exclusively focused on others will also be less effective. We completely concur.

Where we part company is in labeling any those behaviors as a strength.

We find it constructive to use a definition of "a strength" based on the work of psychologist Martin Seligman, among others. By his definition, a strength is a behavior that is:

  • Executed effectively
  • Broadly used in a variety of situations or settings
  • Lasting in its effects over time
  • Consistent in producing positive outcomes
  • Valued for its intrinsic worth, as well as its positive outcomes
  • Not specific to one culture
  • Harmonious with, rather than opposed to, other strengths

By these measures, "being forceful," or "exhibiting righteous honesty unmediated by empathy," are not strengths.

Our analysis of behavior that does fit our definition of strengths comes from data generated in the 360-degree evaluations of 30,000 managers by 300,000 of their colleagues. From examining 12 years of such data, we've identified 16 competencies that describe the most effective leaders and distinguish them from average and poor leaders. When done extremely well, these behaviors become leadership strengths. They included qualities like displaying integrity, exhibiting superior problem-solving skills, being highly technically competent, being innovative, taking initiative, inspiring and motivating others to high performance — and, yes, driving for results.

We've found no evidence that extremely high scores on any of these competencies has negative consequences. That is, we haven't found anyone who scored at the 90th percentile for any one of these behaviors who was perceived by their bosses, colleagues, and direct reports as less effective than someone who scored in the 60th or 70th percentiles. We haven't found the business results of any high scorer to be inferior to the people who received lower scores. Nor have we found subordinates and peers writing more negative comments about a higher scorer than about any individual with a more moderate score.

Instead, we find the data tell a consistent story. Those with the lowest scores on a competency receive many negative written comments, and their objective results are inferior. Those with the highest scores produce the best outcomes on everything we've been able to measure. If this is overusing statistics, then so be it. Our profession needs more leadership analytics, not less, in our opinion.

Some might think strengths-based development was discovered by a social scientist or consulting company, but the real credit should go to Peter Drucker, who in his classic 1967 book The Effective Executive made the compelling case for focusing on strengths. In fact, he argued, it is the role of the organization to leverage people's strengths and to make their weaknesses irrelevant.

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