Strengths-based leadership

I was just reviewing a book about the Strengthsfinder Inventory, a tool I like very much and have been using for quite a while with my clients.  (My blog post called Asking for Help also mentions Strengthsfinder.) This particular book is called “Strengths Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams and Why People Follow”, by Tom Rath and Barry Conchie (2008).

In the overview of the research behind Strengthsfinder there is a quote by Donald Clifton, an educational psychologist who first designed the research interviews: “What would happen if we studied what is right with people?” (page 20). I am encouraged once again, by the premise that it is more effective to expand and build on our greatest talents than to “fix” our weaknesses.

I am encouraged for a few different reasons:

  • One, because it is life-giving, hopeful and a confidence builder to spend time and effort refining something we like to do and do well.  (Sometimes we may decide to learn something we do less well for an important reason. The motivation to learn it helps propel us).
  • Two, because … what a relief to admit that, “you know what? I am simply not good at everything. There. It’s out.” To admit it and accept it is a big step.
  • Finally, there is enough that is wrong or sad in our world. And I am lucky, as I have said in previous posts, to work with wonderful people who are trying to address the wrongs. So, maybe it’s even more important, in their organizations, to balance out the “wrongs” by focusing on what is “right.”

Another piece of the Gallup research stood out to me: the Gallup poll responses from 10,000 followers of leaders.  Respondents were asked two questions:

  1. “What leader has the most positive influence in your daily life?”
  2. “List three words that best describe what this person contributes to your life?” (pages 80 & 81).

Rather than provide multiple choice responses, researchers asked people for their own descriptions. Gallup then analyzed the responses thematically and arrived at four words.

Here they are: Trust, Compassion, Stability and Hope.

How about that?

I want to talk about two of these in this post: compassion and stability.

Compassion is a concept that has come up more and more in my coaching and consulting.  I often find myself saying, “This would be a time to call up compassion for this person … he or she may be facing personal challenges or struggling with insecurity or lack of confidence.”  The Gallup research distinguishes between the “care” that people want from their immediate managers and the more general “compassion” they expect from higher level managers.  They mention that more general compassion can be expressed by supporting employees to take care of their own and their families’ health and well being, essentially showing employees some “heart”, (pages 85-86).

Having compassion for someone’s personal life situation, health condition or internal insecurity is a way to bridge the gap between employee and manager, and to forge a different kind of relationship: a partnership of human beings as well as boss/staff. That doesn’t mean that we should not still expect excellent performance.  We can do both as leaders – be compassionate and hold someone accountable.  It’s worth it to challenge ourselves to call up compassion. There is wonderful, life-giving energy in compassion – expansive and rich.

I find stability to be an interesting expectation of leadership. How can we expect an employer to provide stability for us?  And in this economy? In the Gallup research, stability refers to a “solid foundation, job security and being buffered from unnecessary change.” The authors also talk about providing strength, support and reassurance. To me these are vastly different – the expectation of financial security is a nice wish, in my view and seems unrealistic. However, expecting information about the organization’s financial stability and receiving timely communication and updates is realistic. There are no guarantees of financial security anywhere. In the face of that lack of security, leaders need to be even more consistent in giving out information, communicating their values and offering support to their employees.

In fact, I was somewhat surprised that Gallup’s results did not include purpose, clear expectations and outcomes. In my experience, staff and managers can become disaffected and confused when purpose, expectations and outcomes are not explicit.

To turn it around, organization staff does not always consider the challenges leadership faces. It’s true that choosing to be in a leadership role also means choosing a whole set of responsibilities. But employees, in some ways, are partners with leaders in creating stability and manifesting purpose. After all, how they do their jobs contributes to the organization’s success. And, (and now back to compassion) compassion goes both ways. Staff can learn to call up compassion for leaders, too.

In the end, what this data says to me is that even if the organization’s and leader’s purpose and expectations are clear, the  elements of trust, compassion, stability and hope have to also be in place – flowing from leaders to staff and vice versa. All of us need to be treated with humanity and regard  in the workplace.


Martha Lask’s Blog

Occasional musings about books, articles or tools that might be of interest; I welcome your comments.

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