The consequences of selecting the wrong target as your goal are enormous. That principle clearly applies to major decisions about corporate strategy when the leaders decide what business the firm will pursue.  As Montgomery Ward declined, Wal-Mart ascended to prominence because they chose an enlightened strategy about where to place stores and how to better manage their supply chain.   Once great airlines like Eastern, TWA and Pan Am no longer exist.  While those airlines declined, good decisions enabled Southwest Airlines to acquire its largest competitor as it evolved into a major force in the entire industry.

The consequences of making optimum choices apply to every organization, including our own.  During my tenure as the CEO of a previous learning and development company, I thought the optimum goal for the organization was to help our clients’ newly appointed leaders become sufficiently knowledgeable and skilled to adequately handle their new positions.  It seemed right at the time, and we successfully helped many organizations.   With hindsight, however, I now realize that an even better goal would have been to greatly elevate my sights and focus on the target of helping all leaders to behave like the top ten percent of leaders in their organization.

This basic lesson regarding choosing the right target was one that psychology began to confront in the early 1960’s.  Martin Seligman, as newly elected president of the American Psychological Association admonished his fellow psychologists about their obsessive focus on the dark side of human nature, while they totally ignored any concern for happiness, life satisfaction, success, joy or virtue.  He noted that by a ratio of more than 9 to 1, articles in their journals dealt with depression, sociopathic behavior, crime, rape, dysfunctional families and other abnormal behavior.  Seligman’s crusade to have more balance changed the focus of much research and practice in psychology.

Medicine has gone through a similar shift, as it gradually moves away from only looking at curing disease to a greater emphasis on prevention of illness and helping people to adopt healthy lifestyles.  These seemingly subtle changes in the target lead to dramatically different outcomes.

There has been a great deal of talk in the world of organizational psychology about moving our emphasis in leadership development away from our being riveted on fixing weaknesses to a more positive balance that emphasizes acquiring strengths. I’m going on record to report that this has been a really tough fight.  With many leadership groups, no matter how much encouragement we give them to work on strengths, when push comes to shove, there seems to be an insatiable urge for leaders to focus on fixing a weakness.

Without question, this is a really complex issue.

  • First of all, the fact that they are doing something is clearly better than them doing nothing, so we hate to be too discouraging of their choice to work on weaknesses.
  • Second, we have good data that shows that people who work on weaknesses actually get better in an overall way.
  • Third, some people possess glaring weaknesses that need to be addressed, or everything else they do will be in vain.  There clearly are times when working on a weakness is the correct choice.

But this is not the optimum choice in the great majority of instances.  One purpose of this blog is to enlist your help in finding a way to communicate this really important message to all leaders seeking to improve their performance.  It simply is this.  Focusing on weaknesses will help such leaders to be less bad.  Just as clinical psychology had been helping people to be less mentally ill, we too can help people to be not quite as bad.  But no matter how hard you work on curing a weakness it seldom has the same effect as working on a strength.  Why?

Because you are basically going to get to ground level and that is not what constitutes being a great leader.  Our research has clearly shown that the possession of a small number of signature strengths defines an extraordinary leader.  Only by working on the positive side of the equation is there a high likelihood of making a really positive impact on those about you.

Our data confirms that while those who worked on weaknesses did indeed get better, those who worked on strengths had three times as much success.  And this says nothing of the fact that working on strengths has to be a lot more fun and rewarding than working on something on which you are basically somewhere between being wretched to not very competent.   It is highly unlikely that you will move from -7 to +10 on that dimension.  It is far more likely that you can only get to “0” or ground level, where it isn’t detracting, and then your other strengths will carry the day.

And, while discovering strengths has been a topic of much discussion, the trick isn’t simply to identify those strengths—it’s to learn how to build on them. In The Extraordinary Leader, my colleague, Joe Folkman, and I identified 16 key competencies that are found among the top 10% of all leaders. The good news for leaders everywhere is that truly extraordinary leaders only have strengths in 3 or 4 of these 16 key areas—meaning anyone with even a handful of strengths can really impact an organization.

But once you’ve identified them, how do you develop a strength? In our case, we looked at the data and identified a unique set of companion behaviors for each of the 16 competencies. We’ve found that leaders who focus their development on one or two companion behaviors within a specific competency can build on their strengths tremendously—making them truly extraordinary leaders.

So, what’s the conclusion? Organizations should help leaders develop their strengths and that the way to build a strengths is different from fixing a weakness. The good news is that it’s almost always more fun, more rewarding and most importantly, more successful.

About the author

John H. Zenger is the cofounder of the executive education firm Zenger|Folkman. Coauthor of the bestselling books The Extraordinary Leader and The Inspiring Leader, he was inducted into the Human Resources Development Hall of Fame in 1994 and received the Thought Leader Award from his industry colleagues in 2005.