Leading (and Following) from Strength

The fundamental premise of the book Strengths Based Leadership is: focusing on strengths generates better results than can be gained by addressing weaknesses.

Festivus feats of strength by kellypuffs, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

After reviewing decades of Gallup data on the topic of leadership and surveying over 10,000 followers around the world, authors Tom Rath and Barry Conchie identified three key findings, on which they subsequently based the philosophy of strengths based leadership and related assessment and coaching tools.

  1. The most effective leaders are always investing in strengths: Rath and Conchie’s research revealed an eightfold increase in employee engagement when an organization’s leadership invested in developing the strengths of employees instead of trying to fix their weaknesses. 
  2. The most effective leaders surround themselves with the right people and then maximize their team: Just as they focus on employee strengths, the most effective leaders surround themselves with people who excel in the areas they don’t, thereby filling the gaps in their own knowledge and skills and creating a well-rounded, high performance leadership team.
  3. The most effective leaders understand their followers’ needs: In the words of Warren Buffett, “A leader is someone who can get things done through other people.” In other words, there is no leader without followers. In researching their book, Rath and Conchie found that people will follow a leader who provides trust, compassion, stability and hope. Effective leaders understand this and strive to meet those needs.

How do these four words (trust, compassion, stability and hope) translate into actions in the workplace?

Building Trust in the Workplace

Trust emerges from relationships. To forge real relationships, leaders must consistently demonstrate behaviors that build trust and avoid those that break trust. Some of the most commonly cited traits of trustworthy leaders include:

  • Following through and keeping promises,
  • Telling the truth and being transparent,
  • Sharing information and communicating regularly and clearly, and
  • Standing up for what’s right.

The Compassionate Leader

Traditionally we think of leaders as being strong and powerful. Compassion, on the other hand, is often portrayed as weakness or a too “soft.” Employees who believe that their manager or supervisor genuinely cares about them as a person are more productive, more engaged and more loyal to their employers. While employees may look to immediate supervisors for a more personal level of caring, they still expect their top level leaders to represent the heart of the organization. And a heart without compassion is hard to trust and hard to follow.

Creating Stability

Rath and Conchie found that employees who have a high level of confidence in their company’s financial future are nine times as likely to be engaged. The need for safety and security is a fundamental human motivator. People need to know that their jobs and paychecks are not threatened (unless they are—then they need to know that too!). Even in the midst of change, an effective leader must create a sense of stability. Leaders can help reinforce a sense of security by:

  • sticking to core values,
  • regularly communicating progress toward company objectives,
  • honestly addressing challenges, and
  • providing as much transparency as possible. 

A Vision is About Hope

It’s not enough to offer stability today, good leaders must also offer hope for the future. Rather than responding solely to current crises, the most effective leaders make a point of initiating action in spite of existing challenges. By looking beyond present obstacles, they communicate a clear message of what comes next and how the company will continue to thrive in the future.

Leadership comes in all shapes and sizes, from CEO to volunteer board member. Strengths based leadership is about focusing on the positive in ourselves and others, valuing everyone’s contribution, leading with both heart and head, inspiring hope and building trust—one relationship at a time.


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