The Biggest Misconception of Strengths-based Leadership

Professional | Personal | Education | 6 Minutes Read


If you’re familiar with Tom Rath’s Strengths-based Leadership, you’ve probably heard the statement,

The most effective leaders are always investing in strengths.

So it comes as no surprise that when we ask most people what they think is the main purpose of Strengths-based Leadership, they typically answer along the lines of,

To know how to lead out of your strengths.

They’re not wrong…

…but it’s also not the whole story.

The Focus of Strengths-based Leadership

You see, if the focus was purely on understanding your own leadership strengths, then all it takes for someone to be a good manager is for them to figure out their strengths and how to apply them.

But after working with hundreds of managers, we’ve discovered that the best managers don’t simply know their strengths.

Rather, they’re gifted at discovering the strengths of their team members, and they know how to capitalize on these unique abilities and turn them into performance.

Bottom line:

The main focus of Strengths-based Leadership is to invest into the strengths of your team members, uncovering how they’re uniquely motivated and strategically creating opportunities for them to do what they do best every day.

Creating the Right Role Fit

Case in point.

Recently, we conducted a Strengths-based Leadership Workshop for an events management company.

James, an entrepreneur who had worked hard to build the company from the ground up, was struggling to manage a particular employee, Caleb, who never seemed to be able to hand in his paperwork by the deadline.

Because of the delayed paperwork, there was an administrative backlog that prevented them from properly invoicing clients on time, which cost James lost revenue & productivity.

In our StrengthsFinder workshop with them, one of the activities helped James to decode the link between each of his employees’ Top 5 Strengths and how their strengths were being applied in their job scopes.

Specifically, he learned about the job tasks that his employees were most energized by – as well as the ones they were most drained by.

James learned that Caleb was most energized when building rapport and maintaining relationships with the clients. Because of his Empathy and Positivity themes, Caleb was good at remembering their preferences and putting them at ease with his humor. His Communication strength made him a valuable asset in making effective sales pitches in the form of compelling stories, and first-time clients frequently became recurring clients because of Caleb’s tendency to go the extra mile for them in business arrangements.

But by far the most revealing piece of information James got was that Caleb was most drained by having to pay an extremely high attention to details. Caleb struggled to read through the lengthy documents and government forms required for him to complete his paperwork, and to his dismay, he often made errors that resulted in the documents being returned to him to be amended. When he did set his mind to finishing them, he would spend several laborious hours reading and checking the details – while his colleagues would breeze through them in half the time. This was why he would usually put off his reports until he was hounded to turn them in.

Armed with that knowledge, James decided to take a gamble and adjust Caleb’s role so that he could focus more on winning clients over. First, to resolve the late paperwork problem, James used his Individualization and Arranger strengths, arranging for Caleb to partner with a colleague who could churn out reports in under an hour. In turn, Caleb took on more of the client-facing roles in the team.

The gamble paid off. Within a year, Caleb had doubled his sales targets, the rest of his team were happier and more productive, and James no longer had to constantly worry about the administrative backlog.

Moral of the story?

Great managers understand what each of their employees are good at – and design job roles to maximize and develop their innate talents. At times, this may also include being aware of the employee’s weaknesses, then helping him innovate a solution – or in Caleb’s case, partner with someone with complementary strengths.

Uncovering Intrinsic Motivations

To begin discovering what your employees do best, the first step is to understand what they’re intrinsically motivated by – and therefore what they’re naturally drawn to doing at work every day.

A while back, we asked one of our team members, “what’s one thing we do that helps motivate you at work?”

She responded, “when we all go to lunch together!”

That surprised us. “Wait, lunch? We’re talking about work, you know…”

“Yeah, I know! I like it when we go to lunch together and I hear you guys talk about your families and your lives outside of work. It makes me feel like we’re sharing our lives together, and that motivates me to work harder to serve the team.”

As odd as that may sound, it made sense. That colleague of ours had primarily Relationship Building talent themes in her Top 10. While she’s a high performer who manages the bulk of our administrative workload, her motivation to do so comes from the depth of connection she has with us.

(And ever since then, we’ve always made an effort to return to the office for team lunches whenever we can.)

Now it’s your turn.

If you and your team have taken the StrengthsFinder assessment before, take a look at one of your team members’ Top 5 Strengths.

Think back: How do you see his/her strengths coming out at work every day?

If possible, have a conversation with this team member and ask, “What was one of the best days you’ve had at work in the past six months?” Then, listen closely for clues to find out why he/she enjoyed it so much. Our talent themes point to our intrinsic motivations as well as our greatest value-add, so chances are, the elements that made that day great for your staff are tied to his/her Top 5 Strengths

Bear in mind that strengths are not simply something the person is good at; it could be something they’re innately motivated by, which indicates an area of great potential – if properly invested in and developed. These "naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior that can be productively applied" are the clues to our greatest value-add to the team.

Your ability to listen well - and uncover the intrinsic motivations of your staff - is key to unlocking their potential and turning it into performance.

Interested in what we can offer?

Contact us to know more.


Meiling is a Gallup-Certified StrengthsFinder® Coach. She regularly writes about the 34 Clifton StrengthsFinder® themes and how to use the StrengthsFinder® tool to strengthen vital relationships, forge key partnerships at work, improve productivity, and boost personal and professional fulfillment.