When it comes to leadership, it is better to leverage one’s strengths than to try to improve on weaknesses, says consultant Marcus Buckingham, who spoke at the recent Human Resources Professionals Association conference in Toronto.
In the digital age, where algorithms drive personalization and customization of everything from video games to marketing tools, a one-size-fits-all leadership model doesn’t make sense, says author and consultant Marcus Buckingham.
Indeed, most people are split when asked whether they should play to their strengths or work on their weaknesses, he told the Human Resources Professionals Association’s 2013 conference in Toronto.
However, trying to improve weaknesses to build a leadership style is ultimately self-defeating, Buckingham said — we’re hard-wired to be naturally better at some things than others, and should mould our management characteristics around the positive rather than the negative.
The British-born New Yorker drew on the analogy of his own son, who wasn’t very skilled as an artist in kindergarten but displayed remarkable skills in math that were far ahead of his peers.
"His teacher told us before you spend money on art school to improve his painting, let him learn what he learns best," Buckingham said during his talk, titled Strengths-based Innovation: Find Your Edge, Win at Work. "He will get better at drawing but he loves the precision of math.
"And the research says we grow more synapses in our brain in the area where there are already more branches. We’re not trying to grow branches in our brain where none exist; we’re trying to grow synapses so we build on what we already have some natural advantage."
As such, he said, discovering the innate abilities in each person gives clues as to what best practices in an organization could ideally be harnessed with them in a management or leadership role.
It’s a matter of going with nature, rather than trying to swim upstream: Each of us has a unique DNA and distinct personal characteristics. What works for one manager and team may not work for another. Similarly, knowing their strongest characteristics can lead managers to building on those traits to drive greater productivity from their staff.
"You look at Sir Richard Branson with those flowing locks of hair and those impossibly white teeth standing on the stairs of his plane with a bevy of flight attendants and few bottles of Veuve Clicquot and you think: ‘Yes, that’s what the future should be, we should lead from the front,’ " he said, tongue in cheek.
"But then you look at Warren Buffet. You can’t tell Warren Buffet that if he wants to get the next level, get really serious about his airline, he should be like Branson."
The two styles work because they fit the person, Buckingham said — anything else would not be "authentic."
His research, which began at Cambridge University in the 1980s, is focused around identifying characteristics and then matching people to roles. His seventh and most recent book, StandOut: The Groundbreaking New Strengths Assessment from the Leader of the Strengths Revolution (Thomas Nelson, 2011) distils nine personality types that can be identified through a series of online questions, called the StandOut Strengths Assessment.
Once pinpointed, he said, it’s easier to map techniques to the person rather than just overlay something which could be completely inappropriate.
• Advisor: A pragmatist who considers the best options.
• Connector: His or her network can be relied on to connect people and propel ideas forward.
• Creator: They make sense of things by reflecting on problems.
• Equalizer: Strives for fairness and balance.
• Influencer: Seeks to persuade people to act.
• Pioneer: Pushes to the future to look around the next corner.
• Provider: Sensitive person who takes the time to check on people’s feelings and status while creating a safe place for them to express ideas without fear of rejection or humiliation.
• Stimulator: Seeks to raise people’s energy and emotional levels.
• Teacher: Revels in seeing potential and helping empower people.
Self-realization is critical if managers are going to evolve practical leadership style that fit their personality, he said.
"Steve Jobs is a perfect example," Buckingham said. "He was a terrible leader who was fired from his own company. When he returned, he wasn’t a changed man but he made better use of his strengths. He was the iPhone5 version of himself and a more sophisticated user of his pioneer-influencer characteristics. The challenge for all is to take what is unique about us and make it useful."