Article: Building High-Flying Leaders

Organizational leaders must know and work on their strengths and their weaknesses.

Which wing on an airplane do you think is the most important wing?

Steve Swavely, PhD
Senior Vice President
Corporate Leadership Consulting Manager


Strange question, yes, but read on to see how this applies to building high-flying leaders.

Ever since the publication of “Now Discover Your Strengths” in 2001, there has been a growing trend for organizations to build their leadership capacity by following the authors’ advice to focus on leveraging strengths rather than remediating weaknesses This trend gained further momentum by the positive psychology movement, which seeks to understand what’s right with people versus what’s wrong with them. As a leadership consultant, I’m frequently asked by executives which approach is best to build their leadership? That’s like asking which wing is best on an airplane–the right or the left?

Organizational leaders must know and work on their strengths and their weaknesses, but that’s frequently not what they want to hear. As a rule, it’s more fun to work on one’s strengths than weaknesses. It can be an easy sell to give a leader permission to focus on growing what they're already good at doing and avoid addressing the often difficult and uncomfortable work needed of identifying what could potentially derail them. However, there are at least three problems to the one-sided approach.

  1. Strengths and weakness are frequently the same. Weaknesses are very often nothing more than overdone strengths. When assertiveness is perceived as arrogance or precision is perceived as indecision or creativity is perceived as unrealistic ideas, a leader is at risk of derailing their career, team and organization. Use any strength to an extreme and it is likely to show up as a weakness.
  2. Focusing only on strengths inhibits a leader’s capacity to grow and maximize their capabilities. While leveraging strengths to an appropriate degree is a great approach, it’s not advisable to do so at the exclusion of addressing weaknesses. This is especially true in today’s fast-paced, volatile, uncertain, complex and frequently ambiguous (VUCA) business world. To lead in this environment requires knowing how to leverage strengths, as well as identify and improve on weaknesses, which will be uncovered by the stresses of the VUCA environment.
  3. Some weaknesses can be career derailers if not addressed. One of the strategies of the strength-based approach to leadership development is to compensate for weaknesses by finding others to fill in the void. While this is possible for some jobs within an organization, it’s not for leadership roles. In the business world, the No. 1 derailer for leaders is poor relationship skills. Can you imagine an effective way to have another person clean up a leader’s actions, which damaged relationships with their team? Not likely.


As is key to so many things in life, balance is vital. The BB&T Leadership Institute’s philosophy toward leadership development takes a three-pronged approach. The first is to provide leaders with the deep self-awareness needed to identify core weaknesses they can address. The second is to help leaders recognize what strengths they can leverage. The third is to provide them with the tools needed to do both. You need both of those wings to be a high-flying leader.


Resources

Buckingham, M., & Clifton, D.O. (2001). Now discover your strengths.  New York: The Free Press.

Kaplan, R.,& Kaiser, R. (2009). Stop overdoing your strengths(opens in a new tab) [Blog post]. 

Fabritius, F., & Hagemann, H.W. (2017).  The Leading Brain. New York, New York: Penguin Random House LLC.

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