‘The ageless essence of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths in ways that make a system’s weakness irrelevant.’Peter Drucker (1909 – 2005)
The pandemic lockdown gave us home working and remote leadership, furloughing, redundancies and a great deal of uncertainty. Employees continue to face job insecurity and many may struggle adapting to new ways of working. Now we have a cost of living crisis and a huge number of job vacancies across many sectors. Leaders must approach 2023 with renewed energy and sustainable ways to manage their teams in this new environment. Strengths based leadership is one such approach that can foster team collaboration, resilience and engagement, which can drive productivity and success.
Quick links you can jump straight into – what’s covered in this article:
- What is strengths-based leadership?
- Why is strengths-based leadership important?
- The benefits of strengths-based leadership
- Using strengths-based leadership to motivate employees
- Top tools to implement strengths-based leadership
What is strengths-based leadership?
Thirty years of global Gallup information, polls and data from leaders and individuals were reviewed by consultants Rath & Conchie. Their findings were outlined in their book, Strengths-Based Leadership. They concluded that the most influential leaders were not well-rounded and equally balanced in all skills, and no two leaders possessed the same strengths and weaknesses.
Furthermore, they found that influential leaders should understand their people’s needs, invest in their strengths, and create the best teams with the right people. The conclusion: a leader cannot be good at everything, so they should focus on understanding and enhancing their own strengths whilst creating a team around them to cover all needs!
Why is it important?
Strengths-based leadership is vital to ensure that a team is balanced and skillsets are covered among the team. However, during the challenges of the pandemic, strengths-based leadership has become necessary on a deeper level. More than ever, employees need emotional support from their managers.
Last year, Gallup reviewed past crises to determine what employees required from management during a crisis. The main areas required from leadership were:
Applied to the pandemic, these are areas of leadership practice to be demonstrated more visibly than ever. Employees will undoubtedly look their manager during such uncertain times to confirm that they are cared about, that their well-being matters, that they are informed and clear about what they need to focus on – a focus on the foundational elements of management.
The benefits of strengths-based leadership
- Valuing the expertise in the team
If leaders recognise that they’re not highly skilled in all areas, it gives them a sense of acknowledgement of their strengths and highlights the areas where they may need support. When they have a team around who are energised by and highly skilled in the areas they are not, it provides balance and allows the leader to call on others for help. During homeworking and a climate of job insecurity, involvement of employees is a powerful source of encouragement and motivation, and gives people a stronger sense of control.
Let’s take an example. A leader facing an urgent problem with a difficult stakeholder has two broad choices, step in and deal with it, or assign a person to resolve it. In a crisis it is tempting to step in tackle it, demonstrating to the team that ‘we are all in it together’. The rationale goes that everyone in the team is working hard and the problem could be solved in the time it takes to delegate it. But what if the leader knew each team member well enough to know 1) who really loves a tough problem to solve 2) has the skills to find a solution and 3) has the capacity to do it. Strengths based team working is all about valuing the unique expertise each person brings to the team, and it relies upon the leader being able to delegate to those strengths. All too often in this scenario, the leader ends up stepping in (not stepping back) to deal with the problem, taking them away from being able to support the team on other matters, and missing the opportunity to allow others to play to their strengths.
Co-founder of Pixar, Ed Catmull explains just how vital it is to have the right team playing to their strengths if you want to achieve great results:
“It is easy to say you want talented people, but the way those people interact with one another is the real key. Even the smartest people can form an ineffective team if they are mismatched…In the wake of Toy Story 2, I saw that more clearly than I ever had. Looking around, I realised we had a few traditions that didn’t put people first…Going forward, the development department’s charter would be not to develop scripts but to hire good people, figure out what they needed, assign them to projects that matched their skills, and make sure they functioned well together. To this day, we keep adjusting and fiddling with this model”.
- Encourages trust
A leader who holds onto everything and refuses to let team members help may imply a lack of trust in others. Once again, delegating projects or tasks to those more suited to the task can build motivation, enhance confidence and job satisfaction.
A Gallup survey found that if individual strengths are focussed on then engagement increases. The findings show that if managers focussed on an individual’s specific strengths, 61% were engaged, 38% were disengaged, and only 1% were actively disengaged.
- Building bench strength
When leaders have a self-awareness of their strengths, they can appreciate and plan for which capabilities they need to address. This is where team members or peers are so valuable! When recruiting for their team or development planning, leaders can select individuals or development based on what they’re lacking. Such strength awareness can influence recruitment and development decisions and contribute to a diverse, cohesive and high performing team. It is also crucial for short term succession or ‘caretaker’ management, when a leader needs a person to step in to a more senior role immediately. This has become a very common scenario during the pandemic, when a key member of staff has tested postive for Covid-19 and must immediately be quarantined.
“As a leader, do you know exactly who could step into your role at a moments notice? If not, understanding and nurturing individual strengths in your team should be a pressing priority”
- Reduces anxiety in others
The pandemic will have caused many to worry, feel unsettled, or feel overly anxious about the present or the future. If leaders understand their individual team members’ strengths, they can, where possible, ensure that delegated work plays to these strengths.
If an employee can carry out projects or tasks that sit in their comfort zone or are good at, it may reduce anxiety and increase resilience. They can reach their potential and build on their existing strengths. If there is an expectation for them to learn something new while remote, it may negatively impact their well-being. This will be a case-by-case approach, and some may revel in the idea of learning something new, so it’s again about understanding each person.
Using strengths-based leadership for motivation
Once the decision has been made to apply strengths-based leadership to a team or throughout a company, the question is how to apply it, especially during a very unpredictable period. Firstly, leaders need to understand themselves (see below for specific ideas.)
Next, leaders must talk to each of their team members to understand more about them. With considerable change in many organisations during 2020, some leaders may find themselves managing new individuals or those who have been recruited but have been working remotely. By talking to each person about their favourite types of projects and tasks and their perceived strengths, leaders can understand skill sets and what individuals enjoy and therefore motivate them. These discussions can be combined with strengths-based tools or assessments to identify each individual’s strengths.
Finally, leaders should follow-up with each team member to discuss and recognise their strengths and ideally delegate work according to strengths within the team. During video team meetings, leaders can acknowledge individual contributions because they understand the team, what each person is good at and how using specific skills motivates people—such open communication and positivity recognises individual achievements and contributions to the team and company. Done fairly and regularly, it will build trust and engagement.
Tools to implement strength-based leadership
To manage and lead a strength-based team, leaders must first gain awareness of their strengths to highlight skill gaps. There are tools designed to help with this self-assessment:
My Leadership Strengths offers The Quick Prioritisation Tool (QPT), a leadership tool which allows individual self-assessments and personal reports across all levels and locations. It allows leaders to understand not only their strengths and development areas, but also to develop their team according to skill gaps.
This feedback report is built to drive better conversations between an individual and rater (manager, team member or colleague). It has a unique approach to prioritising capabilities and gathering feedback. Rather than gather, average out and anonymise feedback from multiple raters like a traditional 360 assessment, the QPT+1 gives the participant and single rater insights to discuss together in a comparison report.
It’s a simple message, but one many may not be familiar with; leaders should know their unique strengths and how to use them. It’s about the understanding that no one can excel in everything and leaders can play to their strengths by surrounding themselves with a team that excels in the areas they do not. Such strengths-based leadership is particularly important when teams need to feel needed, engaged and motivated and done correctly; it can build resilience and support the team’s well-being.