Strengths and Weaknesses

Posted 03.25.2009

Atlas1 I’m spending most of this week fulfilling some of my duties as a faculty member in the Georgetown Leadership Coaching Program.  One of the topics that comes up fairly frequently  in the coaching classroom is the great debate on whether leaders should focus on playing to their strengths or improving their weaknesses.  Books like Go Put Your Strengths to Work by Marcus Buckingham and a lot of the writing coming out of the Gallup Organization advocate focusing only on your strengths. 

I beg to differ. If you want to be successful as a senior leader, you have to address both sides of the equation.  Strengths and weaknesses both matter – a lot.

That’s why I was excited to see a terrific post yesterday from my friend Dan McCarthy at the Great Leadership blog which methodically deconstructs the hoo-ha on only playing to one’s strengths.  It’s worth a read and I highly recommend it to you.

I've got nothing against leveraging one's strengths and actually encourage my coaching clients to do it all the time.  I think a lot of good coaching also focuses on calibrating the client's strengths – pointing out opportunities to either dial the strengths up or down.

That said, if a leader wants to take on more responsibilities, the weaknesses also need to be addressed.  There are basic expectations that come with higher level roles.  If you want to play at the next level,  you have to master the skills required to be there whether or not your natural strengths match up with them.

The analogy that comes to mind is that I have two sons. The oldest is really strong on verbal skills and the youngest is really strong on math and science skills. They could both probably do OK in the world if they just played to their strengths.  But, if they really want to achieve at the highest levels, the oldest is going to have to work on his math and the youngest is going to have to become a better writer.  There is a certain basic level of competence required to be a successful 21st century citizen and those standards are the standards. If you want to play, you’ve got to meet them.  

It’s the same situation with leadership. Smart leaders are honest with themselves that they have both strengths and weaknesses.  The really smart leaders intentionally and continuously work on improving on the weaknesses that matter most.

That’s my take. What’s yours?