“So, what are your weaknesses…?” This was a question that most people dislike when interviewed. It feels negative and elicits what seems like a “no-win” answer. We all have weaknesses but are these critical to our success or lack thereof – according to Jack Zenger – No!
Zenger, co-author in 2013 of “How to be an Exceptional Leader”, notes that the key to success is to elevate your strengths – and only focus on weaknesses if these are what Zenger calls “fatal flaws”.
Over a two year period, Zenger and his team studied 545 relatively senior executives who were regularly assessed by colleagues through 360 degree feedback. Although past experts have been saying the same thing for years, the results of Zenger’s research made it strikingly clear – key to leadership is standing out in some remarkable way, not in being “good” at lots of things.
Zenger adds that a “generalist” leader who is reasonably good at everything (i.e., “Jack of all trades but master of none”) will never be a great leader. That only comes from turning competencies into outstanding strengths. Michael Peel, Vice President, Human Resources and Administration for Yale University writes in HBR,\
“This is the best book on professional development I have read in decades. It reinforces the emerging wisdom that the path to greatness is really about building profound strengths, rather than through relentlessly focusing on one’s weaknesses. This is a great road map for any leader seeking to optimize their growth and impact.”
Here are some other highlights from Zenger’s study:
1. Realize Exponential Benefits by Developing Strengths
A major discovery from Zenger’s research was that developing great strength in a relatively small number of competencies catapults a person into the top tier of leadership.
Zenger defined a “profound” strength as one in the top 10% when benchmarked against a database of effective leaders. He notes that turning even one competency into a profound strength, will elevate most leaders into the top third, as viewed by others. Having three profound strengths will move leaders to the top 20%.
2. Outstanding Leaders Aren’t Perfect – Having “Non-critical” Weaknesses is Okay
The research of Zenger’s team revealed that a “lack of weakness” was not a distinguishing feature of the best leaders. Great leaders always possessed a few profound strengths. In contrast, mediocre leaders were distinguished by their lack of strengths, not by their possession of a few deficiencies. In the book, Zenger cites examples where someone who had no flaws, but also no outstanding strengths, was regularly passed over for senior leadership roles.
Great leaders have typically developed a few extraordinary strengths – statistically in the top 10% of the population norm – But these same great leaders are not viewed as perfect. Others recognize that they also have some weaknesses – but not what Zenger terms “fatal flaws”. In other words, their weaknesses do not detract from their overall leadership effectiveness.
Most great leaders are praised for their exceptional strengths, although followers readily acknowledge these leaders also have weaknesses. This is key: Followers are willing to overlook flaws that are not debilitating, provided they are inspired by the leader’s profound strengths. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Stephen Jobs, Bill Clinton, and many other leaders give credence to that point.
Zenger concludes that if people can develop even one or two exceptional strengths, they only need to pay attention to weaknesses if these weaknesses are significant and detracting from their success.
3. There is no “Traction” in Fixing Weaknesses…. Avoid the “Report Card Mentality”!
Zenger says that society is generally hard-wired to focus on, and fix, weaknesses. He says this is largely a waste of time, in terms of building leadership excellence. He makes some compelling arguments that most of us can relate to.
For example, when a child brings home a report card that is generally very good (i.e., mostly “A’s” and “B’s” but with one or two “C’s”), what do parents tend to do? Most make a quick comment on the good stuff, and then zero right in on the marks that need improvement. This, of course, causes kids to become more concerned with not having any “bad” marks than having a few exceptional grades.
Similarly, Zenger notes that today’s organizational performance management systems are much too focused on fixing weaknesses, rather than enhancing already existing strengths. His research suggests this is flawed thinking – and leads to mediocrity, versus excellence.
He also states this is a colossal waste of time. Zenger points out it is unrealistic and near futile to expect that an individual will persevere to improve something that he or she is no good at and likely doesn’t enjoy. A logical intention must have an emotional connection to become a personal conviction. Very few people would have a positive emotional connection with fixing a weakness.
Instead, Zenger says what really motivates people is striving for mastery – it is much more fulfilling to take a competency (i.e., something that you are already good at and enjoy doing) and transform it into an outstanding strength.
Based on the wisdom of Zenger’s book, the question for all of us should not be, “how do I fix my defects?” The real question should be, “how do I get better at something I’m already good at?”
4. Robert Harris Resources (RHR) Strengths-Based Leadership Development Programs
If you’re interested in knowing more about how you can implement “strengths-based” development programs in your organization, please contact Robert Harris at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our website at www.rhresources.com. Please review our PDF on what is the SDI (Strengths Deployment Inventory) – Matt, see the two attachment(s)that I attached to this message; can they be added to the site?