THE BLOG
02/22/2012 12:39 pm ET Updated Apr 23, 2012

What Makes for Good Leadership?

In 2008, Gallup scientists reported on a research project that surveyed more than one million work teams, conducted more than 20,000 in-depth interviews with leaders, and spoke with more than 10,000 "followers" around the world asking people why they followed the important leaders in their life. Results of their research launched a new perspective on the question, "What makes for good leadership?"

One of the surprising outcomes was the debunking of the myth that leaders need to be what they called "well-rounded," which I take to mean that good leaders do not need to be talented, gifted or skilled in all aspects of leadership. The Gallup findings say that good leaders focus on the strengths they have, not their weaknesses, and use those strengths to their best advantage.

In 2009, Tom Rath and leadership consultant Barry Conchie wrote Strengths Based Leadership, a New York Times best seller, in which they concluded:

  • The most effective leaders invest in their own strengths, and the strengths of their employees
  • The most effective leaders find the "right" people to work with and strategize to maximize their team's abilities. The leaders themselves do not need to be "well-rounded", but their teams do.
  • The most effective leaders understand that their followers need trust, compassion, stability and hope from them

Donald O. Clifton, referred to as the father of strength-based psychology, once said "A leader needs to know his strengths as a carpenter knows his tools, or as a physician knows the instruments at her disposal. What great leaders have in common is that each truly knows his or her strengths -- and can call on the right strength at the right time."

Strengths based leadership is liberating for a number of reasons:

  1. It frees leaders to focus on developing the gifts and talents they possess, especially those needed in their current work context, and to identify how to refine their skills for further effectiveness. It relieves those who think they need to be good at everything.
  2. It helps explain why some work contexts feel satisfying and others don't. Fit, in the work place, is important. Leaders feel well-placed and gratified when the demands of the job fit with their best talents. On the other hand, when leaders set out to accomplish big goals using their lesser-developed strengths, the outcome may be compromised, and the process will likely be uncomfortable.
  3. It helps quiet the "inner critic." Many even successful leaders are plagued with a perfectionist inner critic that casts doubt on their skills if they are not good at every aspect of leading. This perfectionism can inhibit the full-use of talents, undermine self-confidence and create paralysis from fear of making mistakes. Remembering that one does not need to be all-knowing, all talented, in possession of all strengths, helps support resilience, forward movement and greater job satisfaction.

Attention to one's strength is not an invitation to ignore areas of lesser development. As we gain awareness of strengths, we gain awareness of lesser developed traits. With awareness, leaders can make decisions about whether or not they need to address these lesser developed areas. They may choose that greater development is not necessary for success in their particular role. They may get clear that they need to find those "right" people as a compliment to their gifts, or, of course, they may opt for attending to strengthening their lesser developed work muscle from a position of life-long learning.

In the world of executive and leadership development, "360-degree" feedback instruments are increasingly being used for multi-rater assessment of managers, leaders and teams. Years ago such assessments focused primarily on specific skills and competencies, but more recently there is a ground swell of 360-degree assessments that are character, and strength-based. Pam Boney, the developer of the Tilt 360 Strength-Based Leadership Predictor said, "A lack of focus on character strengths in leadership has been called by some the 'great blind spot of our time'... To lead effectively in today's turbulent economy, leaders must actively develop personal character strengths to rely upon to address complex problems containing moral, ethical and strategic issues." Boney claims that "many leaders have a tendency to underestimate their strengths as well as their blind spots, so feedback can be valuable to leverage... their leadership abilities."

So good leaders do not need to be good at everything! They need to increase self-awareness, know their strengths, invest in them, and support others who have complimentary gifts and talents. As a leadership coach I use the Tilt 360 because I know that increased awareness is where all growth starts -- awareness of our gifts, our strengths, our skills, our blind-spots and of the limits imposed by our Inner Critic -- all critical self-assessments for placing ourselves well and using our best qualities for the greatest advantage.

For more, see www.resilientleadership.org and www.bethweinstockphd.com