Adopt a strengths-based approach to development . . .

The argument to adopt a strengths-based approach to leadership development is presented in this article from  This approach is more than appropriate for nonprofit organizations, for the growth and advancement of staff, and for our own careers.  Our firm has adopted this approach to the advancement and improvement of an organization’s development and fundraising operations and has generated excellent results.

One Secret for Greatness: Choose The Right Leadership Development Goals

by Jack Zenger

The consequences of selecting the wrong targets are enormous. There are many examples from corporate history. As Montgomery Ward and Sears declined, for example, Walmart ascended to prominence because of their goal to serve smaller, rural markets and enlightened strategy about how to manage supply chains. Airlines that were once great, such as Eastern, TWA and Pan Am, no longer exist. Conversely, while those airlines declined, Southwest Airlines chose to serve markets that had not been served by the traditional carriers, standardizing their aircraft, keeping fares low and creating a highly committed workforce. This allowed it to be consistently profitable and acquire its largest competitor on its path to becoming a major industry player.

Leadership development goals can also have an impact on organizations. GE and Westinghouse were at one time of equal size and stature. While many factors ultimately caused GE to leap forward, one of them was GE’s decision to invest in developing leaders.

The consequences of leadership choices apply to every organization. During my tenure as CEO of a previous learning and development company, I thought the optimum goal for the organization was to help our clients’ newly appointed leaders to become sufficiently knowledgeable and skilled to adequately handle their new positions. It seemed right at the time, and we successfully helped many organizations. With hindsight, however, I now realize that an even better goal would have been to elevate my vision to the target of helping all leaders behave like the top ten percent, to embody the behaviors of the best in their organizations.

This basic lesson is one that clinical psychology learned in the early 1960’s. Martin Seligman, as newly elected president of the American Psychological Association, admonished fellow psychologists about their obsessive focus on the dark side of human nature, while they ignored concerns for happiness, life satisfaction, success, joy or virtue. He noted that by a ratio of more than 9 to 1, articles in their journals dealt with depression, sociopathic behavior, crime, rape, dysfunctional families and other abnormal behavior. Seligman’s crusade for balance changed the focus of much research and practice in psychology that carries on to this day.

Medicine has made a similar shift, as it gradually moves away from only looking at curing disease to a greater emphasis on prevention of illness and encouragement to adopt healthy lifestyles. These seemingly subtle changes in the target have led to dramatically different outcomes.

There has been a great deal of talk in organizational psychology about moving our emphasis in leadership development away from our fixation on weakness to a more positive balance that puts its emphasis on acquiring key strengths. I will go on record here to report that it has been a really tough fight. For many leadership groups, no matter how much encouragement we give them to work on strengths, when push comes to shove, they maintain an insatiable urge to focus instead on fixing their weakness.

Without question, the issue is complex:

• First, the fact that these leaders are doing something is clearly better than doing nothing, and so we hate to totally discourage their efforts to focus on weakness.
• Secondly, we have data that shows people who work on weaknesses actually do become better leaders in an overall way.
• Furthermore, some people have glaring weaknesses (we call them “fatal flaws”) that must be addressed, or everything else they attempt is in vain. In these cases, working on a weakness first is clearly the optimal choice.

But a focus on weakness is not the ideal choice in the great majority of cases. In this column, I challenge each of you to communicate a vital message to all leaders who seek to improve their performance. The message is this: Focusing on weaknesses will help leaders to be “less bad” in the same way clinical psychology has helped people to be less mentally ill. But no matter how hard you work on curing a weakness it will seldom make the level of impact you could achieve by honing a strength.

Making weaknesses “less bad” makes for mediocre leaders. But our research shows that focusing on even a small number of signature strengths can produce extraordinary success. These are the goals that make the most dramatic and positive impact on the people around you.

Yes, our data confirms that those who’ve worked on weaknesses do get better. However, those who worked on strengths increased their success by a multiplier of three. Additionally, working on strengths is significantly more fun and rewarding than working on something on which you are working to move the needle from wretched to minimal competence, as it is highly unlikely you will move from -7 to +10 in the course of correcting a fault. It is far more likely your hard work would take you “0” or ground level, where the flaw isn’t detracting from the ability for your other strengths to carry the day.