Mediocre leaders fix weakness, great leaders leverage strengths
Paul Mohapel, PhD
Back to Index
This article explores strength-based approaches to physician leadership. The nature and impact of strengths are addressed and differentiated from those of weaknesses. Recent research demonstrates how paying attention to intrinsic strengths is the key to exceptional performance and innovation, while the conventional wisdom of fixing weaknesses is ultimately ineffective and leads to mediocrity.
KEY WORDS: physician leadership, strengths, weakness, excellence, high performers
The truth about exceptional performers
In the 1990s, the Gallup polling organization became very interested in understanding what differentiated mediocre from exceptional leaders. Using their well-established polling apparatus, they systematically investigated over 80 000 managers to see if they could find the essential attribute(s) of high-performing leaders. Top
Unexpectedly, in virtually every profession and career, the best discriminator of outstanding performance was not a character attribute, but simply came down to how people spent their time. Specifically, compared with mediocre performers, exceptional leaders invested a greater proportion of their time engaged in activities that energized and fulfilled them.1
Compared with average leaders, it seems that exceptional leaders have a greater awareness of their natural talents and spend proportionally more time leveraging these strengths and less time addressing their weaknesses. In fact, exceptional performers were not good at many things but excelled at just a few select things, which runs against the conventional wisdom that values well-roundedness. Top
Gallup’s research on top achievers can be distilled into four principles:
Defining a strength
When I ask leaders to define a strength, the most common response is: “something you’re good at” or “someone who is very competent or skillful.” Although these perspectives are not wrong, they are incomplete. First, being good or competent is not the same as being exceptional; a strength implies a level of performance that most do not achieve. Second, these definitions don’t tell us where a strength comes from or the conditions that must be in place for exceptional performance to appear. Skills and knowledge are important components of a strength, but they tell us nothing about why some achieve exceptional performance, despite having the same access to knowledge or training as others who do not. Top
Recent research has offered a more complete understanding of strengths. The Gallup group asserts that strengths are derived primarily from innate dispositions, or talents, which are “naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behaviour.”2 A strength can be viewed as “a pre-existing capacity for a particular way of behaving, thinking, or feeling that is authentic and energising to the user, and enables optimal functioning, development and performance.”3
If we were to drill down to the essential innate quality that exemplifies a strength, it would be the experience of feeling energized when one engages in a particular, focused activity.4 Being energized implies experiences that are associated with strong positive emotions that are linked with deeply rooted yearnings and satisfactions.1 When playing to talents, one feels empowered, which prompts one to move to higher levels of excellence. Playing to one’s talents is a positive reinforcer, and doing it continuously is energizing and motivating. Indeed, when people focus on developing their strengths, we find that their learning curve is much more rapid than that of the average person.2 Top
Strengths need to be cultivated
Gallup discovered that each person has a limited, specific number of naturally occurring talents, which represent the unique and authentic aspects of one’s personhood. There is a direct connection between one’s talents and their achievements, where “a talent is… productively applied” to produce a strength.2 As such, a strength may be something that one is not necessarily good at in the moment but has the potential to lead us to becoming outstanding, i.e., when one reaches consistent, near-perfect performance in a given activity5 (Figure 1).
Linley and colleagues3 point out that strengths come in two forms: those that are consciously known to us because we use them frequently in our lives (realized strengths), and those that are unknown because there is little opportunity to use them (unrealized strengths). The underlying message is that strengths need to be developed and, if they are ignored, then they lie dormant and underused. Therefore, the greatest barrier to our living to our fullest potential and becoming exceptional may lie in the fact that we do not focus a sufficient amount of time on nurturing our strengths.6 Top
Honing one’s own innate talents through focused development is a necessary condition for talents to emerge into strengths. One cultivates a strength by learning knowledge (facts and information) and practising skills (the steps in an activity). To use an analogy, talents can be viewed as “diamonds in the rough,” whereas strengths are diamonds that show brilliance after they have been carefully cut and polished.
The limitations of weaknesses
Several years ago, Gallup asked the following question of managers around the world: “Which would help you be more successful in your life — knowing what your weaknesses are and attempting to improve your weaknesses or knowing what your strengths are and attempting to build on your strengths?” Those who chose to focus on their strengths were a minority in all countries examined.2 Top
This speaks to a powerful assumption that underlies most organizations: each person’s growth is in their areas of greatest weakness. This is particularly evident in our common language, which is richly detailed in weaknesses. For example, there are overwhelmingly more terms to describe weakness in psychiatry (neurosis, psychosis, depression, mania, hysteria, panic attacks, paranoia, etc.) than there are terms to describe strengths, which tend to be more vague and general, such as “happiness.” Moreover, Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi7 reported that there are over 40 000 studies on depression and only 40 on happiness, joy, and fulfillment. Embedded in this assumption is that “good” is the opposite of “bad,” or “strengths” are simply the inversion of a “weakness.” The extension of that thinking implies that to enhance strengths, one simply needs to focus more on improving weaknesses.
However, the positive psychology movement has pointed out fundamental flaws in the weakness approach, challenging the notion that strength and weakness are opposites existing on the same continuum.7 For example, can one truly understand what it means to be healthy by only studying disease? Can one learn what it takes to have a successful marriage by simply knowing everything there is about divorce? To understand effective leadership, should we just examine poor leaders? Top
Buckingham8 argues that focusing too much on weaknesses only reinforces mediocrity, as all you can learn from failure is how not to fail; it teaches us nothing about what it takes to be successful or excel. He argues that the primary reason we avoid focusing on our strengths is the fear of failure. This is particularly true in health care, where we seem more focused on “surviving” emergencies and putting out fires, than on what it takes to thrive, innovate, and build on past successes. To ask people to build their strengths requires, first, a fundamental shift in one’s perceptions and assumptions around weaknesses. Top
The strengths-based literature does not advocate completely ignoring weaknesses, but rather places less emphasis on them. If you have a limited amount of resources and time, you are better off focusing on what you do well and what energizes you than on something you find draining and unfulfilling. Weaknesses need to be seen as anything that gets in the way of excellent performance; therefore, the more effective strategy is to contain and work around them rather than making them a primary focus of our development. Some authors go as far as to state that true weaknesses do not exist, but what, in fact, prevents us from a higher level of performance is an imbalance of opposing strengths.5 Top
The case for strengths-based approaches
Alex Linley and his colleagues3 explored the connections among strengths use, goal progress, psychological needs, and well-being. They found that those who identify and develop their core strengths report greater progress on their goals, higher motivation, increased life satisfaction, more positive emotions, and fewer negative emotions. Moreover, greater life satisfaction and motivation are the result of creating greater self-concordant goals (i.e., goals that are consistent with who one truly is), reinforcing the notion that true core strengths align with one’s authentic self. Top
The Gallup organization has conducted the bulk of research on the benefits of strength-based approaches, with up to 10 million workers studied to date. Its research clearly demonstrates that strengths-based interventions have a profound positive impact on workplace performance and leadership.1 Some of the common benefits of learning about one’s strengths are greater self-awareness, teamwork, engagement, optimism, subjective well-being, and confidence.9
For example, a Gallup study indicated that employees who have the opportunity to focus on their strengths every day are six times as likely to be engaged in their jobs and more than three times as likely to report having an excellent quality of life.10 Increases in employee engagement as a result of strengths-based development have been meaningfully linked to such business outcomes as profitability, turnover, safety, and customer satisfaction.11 Top
Direct benefits of strength-based development have also been shown in the health care environment. For example, Black12 examined the impact of strength-based interventions for nine hospitals over a three-year period and found a significant elevation in employee engagement. A recent study by Muller and Karsten13 examined the impact of deploying a strength-based “leadership development inventory” to the entire population of a regional health care system and found that it enhanced awareness, employee satisfaction, employee retention, conflict resolution, inter- and intradepartmental communication, and overall organizational culture. To date, no studies have assessed the direct impact of strength-based inventories on physician performance. Top
Developing one’s strengths
Marcus Buckingham,8 one of the original researchers with Gallup, has found that the greatest barrier to developing one’s strengths is a lack of awareness and an underdeveloped vocabulary to articulate strengths. He offers two approaches to discovering one’s strengths: track daily activities for events that either energize or drain energy; and conduct a strength-based assessment. Top
The purpose of tracking one’s daily activities is to raise awareness around one’s intrinsic strengths in action. Just over the course of a week, recording specific work or personal activities that either energize or drain, can indicate patterns of strengths and weaknesses.4,8 Another approach is to complete a strength-based self-assessment inventory. Unfortunately, almost all assessments on the market focus on and measure weaknesses (even if they claim to measure strengths, most just invert what you’re not weak in and assume it’s a strength). Proper strengths inventories need to provide, not just information about what one is good at, but also address those innate talents that are energizing, feel authentic to use, are consistently applied, and are used across multiple settings. Currently, there are only a small handful of inventories that directly assess strengths or talents. One example is the StrengthsFinder assessment by Gallup, which allegedly identifies one’s top five signature strengths.14 Top
On a final note, one of the greatest barriers to developing strength is the fear of “overdoing” one’s strength, in that it becomes a liability. There does not appear to be any substantial evidence to support such a claim, and more likely this viewpoint reflects the pervasive weakness mentality discussed above.6 Given that it is the application of our strengths that results in exceptional performance, the real issue is likely due to misattributions about our strengths. In fact, the real culprit is often an underlying weakness that is undetected or ignored. For example, if a physician is strong in empathy, yet finds that she is negatively impacted by her patient’s emotional responses, she might interpret this as overusing empathy and decide that she needs to pull back. However, the real issue is that she may have an unaddressed weakness, such as being unskilled in setting boundaries with her patients. Thus, the effective solution is not to reduce her empathy, but to increase her skill in setting boundaries.
To conclude, the strengths-based literature indicates that talent is not something that is rare and restricted to a few. In fact, all of us are equally gifted with a unique set of innate qualities that predispose us to greatness. Therefore, the issue is not whether we have the potential to be outstanding but whether we are able to identify, appreciate, and nurture our gifts. We face an uphill battle to cultivate our strengths, as health care is predominantly concerned with fixing weaknesses.
Perhaps, one of the most important steps we can take as physician leaders is to start paying greater attention, not only to our own strengths, but also to the strengths of those we lead. As leaders, we need to start encouraging and appreciating the best that all of us have to bring, in the hope of better serving our patients and innovating the health care system.
1.Buckingham M, Coffman C. First, break all the rules: what the world’s greatest managers do differently. Washington DC: The Gallup Organization; 1999.
2.Buckingham M, Clifton D. Now, discover your strengths. New York: The Free Press; 2001.
3.Linley A, Willars J, Biswas-Diener R. The strengths book: be confident, be successful, and enjoy better relationships by realising the best of you. Coventry, UK: Capp Press; 2010.
4.Robinson K, Aronica L. Finding your element: how to discover your talents and passions and transform your life. New York: Penguin Books; 2013.
5.Thomas JW, Thomas TJ. The power of opposite strengths: making relationships work. Tulsa, Okla.: Thomas Concept; 2006.
6.Kaplan RE, Kaiser RB. Fear your strengths: what you are best at could be your biggest problem. Oakland, Calif.: Berrett-Koehler Publishers; 2013.
7.Seligman ME, Csikszentmihalyi M. Positive psychology: an introduction. Am Psychol 2000;55(1):5-14.
8.Buckingham M. Go put your strengths to work: 6 powerful steps to achieve outstanding performance. New York: The Free Press; 2007.
9.Hodges TD, Clifton DO. Strength-based development in practice. In Linley PA, Joseph S. International handbook of positive psychology in practice: from research to application. New Jersey: Wiley and Sons; 2004: 256-68.
10.Sorenson S. How employees’ strengths make your company stronger. Bus J;2014:Feb. 20. Available: http://tinyurl.com/hshmdfd
11.Harter JK, Schmidt FL, Hayes TL. Business-unit-level relationship between employee satisfaction, employee engagement, and business outcomes: a meta-analysis. J Appl Psychol 2002; 87(2): 268-79.
12.Black B. The road to recovery. Gallup Manage J 2001;1:10-2.
13.Muller R, Karsten M. The systematic deployment of a leadership inventory to an employee population. Int J Knowl Culture Change Manage 2011;11(1).
14.Rath T, Conchie B. Strengths based leadership. New York: Gallup Press; 2008.
Paul Mohapel, MSc, MA, PhD, began his career as a neuroscientist. While working in Sweden, he had an epiphany that inspired him to move into leadership development. Today, he uses his knowledge of the brain, psychology, and leadership to consult, facilitate, and educate with various organizations.
Correspondence to: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article has been reviewed by a panel of physician leaders.