A guest blog post from Frank Arnold, author of What Makes Great Leaders Great

Albert Einstein (1879–1955) loved nothing more than playing the violin: “I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music. . . .I know I get most joy in life out of music.” Opinions dif­fered, however, about how good a violinist Einstein actually was. Most people thought he was not especially talented, although somewhat more charitable contemporaries said he played “with feeling.” In truth, Ein­stein probably had good reason for deciding to become a physicist rather than a musician. Nevertheless he managed to find a way of enjoying both pursuits: In his career he concentrated on his strength—physics—while in private, where no damage could be done, he continued to indulge his passion for violin playing. “Music,” Einstein wrote, “does not influence re­search work, but both are nourished by the same sort of longing, and they complement each other in the release they offer.”

Similarly, one of the central tasks of all managers is to enhance the per­formance of their organization by drawing on their strengths. Three areas in particular are deserving of attention: drawing on your own strengths, harnessing the strengths of your colleagues, and drawing on the strengths of your organization.

Drawing on your own strengths

Your first step toward greater effectiveness is to ascertain your own strengths. To do this, look back at your past achievements and results and try to spot a pattern. What did you find relatively easy to do, while others would have had considerably more difficulty completing the same task? In which areas did you perform exceptionally well, com­pared with others? Using feedback analysis, as described in Chapter 14 about James Watt, is a pretty reliable way of identifying your strengths.

Once you are aware of what those strengths are, focus on them as much as you can, and put yourself in a situation in which you can draw on them. Seek out corresponding tasks within your organization. At the same time find out which tasks are not suited to your strengths, and then avoid them! Decide unequivocally what you would be well advised not doing. Focus on playing to your strengths.

In addition, you need to constantly develop your strengths. After all, the difference between middling and excellent managers is that the latter always endeavor to improve at whatever they are already very good at. This is just as true of managers as it is of musicians, athletes, politicians, or physicians. Feedback analysis will very quickly show you where you lack ability and what you need to improve. If you lack the knowledge required to develop your strengths, acquire it. By boosting the necessary skills and building up the knowledge you need, you will successfully deploy your strengths to the fullest effect.

Finally, you should also make sure that your strengths are deployed in keeping with your values. Albert Einstein suffered for the rest of his life after contributing to the development of the atom bomb, in viola­tion of his pacifist ideals: “But the probability that the Germans might work on that very problem with good chance of success prompted me to take that step,” he said. After World War II he campaigned intensively for disarmament and peace, and shortly before his death he signed a manifesto against nuclear weapons.

Harnessing the strengths of your colleagues

You will never perform well if you start out from areas of weakness, re­gardless of whether the weaknesses in question are your own or those of your subordinates, colleagues, or superiors. Results are achieved by making strengths productive. This is a fundamental aim of any orga­nization, since doing so opens up major opportunities and potential. If you have people working for you, you must enable them to combine their performances effectively. The best way of achieving this is to de­ploy people in such a way that they can draw on each other’s strengths. At the same time, make their weaknesses become irrelevant. One slo­gan perfectly encapsulating this approach was used in the United States to support disabled people looking for a job: “It’s the abilities, not the disabilities, that count.” And no slogan better sums this up than that of one American organization for the disabled: “Don’t hire a person for what they can’t do, hire them for what they can do.” Is there any better, more characteristically human way of describing how human beings should be deployed?

On the other hand, you need to be able to recognize your own weak­nesses and those of your subordinates in order to make sure that nei­ther you nor they are used in areas where weaknesses could prove a hindrance. Because if this happened, it would not only result in medio­cre performances by the individuals involved, it would also damage the organization as a whole. One interesting fact worth noting is that peo­ple with major strengths almost invariably exhibit major weaknesses as well (“The higher the peak, the deeper the valley,” as one famous Alpine skier saying so aptly puts it). Of course, your job as a manager is not to change people, even if that is at all possible and morally justifiable, but to deploy them in the organization in as carefully considered a manner as possible, in a way that maximally draws on their existing strengths. This means that decisions about who should fill a vacancy or assume responsibility for key tasks must always be based on what the person in question is already capable of, where his or her strengths lie, and which specific requirements the incumbent of the job or assignment in question needs to meet at that particular time. The appointment will prove successful only if the strengths of the individual are appropriate for accomplishing the key task at hand.

Just as most people do not have the good fortune to be blessed with numerous talents, organizations do not tend to be truly competent in many different areas. On the contrary, a majority of the most powerful and healthiest companies on the planet are highly specialized world-beaters. A very readable book by Hermann Simon, Hidden Champions of the 21st Century, provides numerous examples.

So identify and develop the strengths of your organization, because in those few core skills lies the key to success. Naturally, the organiza­tion must perform well in many different areas, but it must excel in at least one domain if it is to attain any significant degree of success. Focus your organization’s efforts and establish a niche or activity in which you can outperform your competitors and where you are better at meeting market demand.

Incidentally, it was not least due to Albert Einstein’s extraordinary abilities in physics that he had to endure the occasional derisive remark about his somewhat less-than-perfect violin playing. One afternoon, so the story goes, when Einstein was playing through some sonatas with the world-famous pianist Arthur Rubinstein, he missed his cue and came in too late, earning the following rebuke from Rubinstein: “Albert, can’t you count?”

Action points and food for thought

  • What are your strengths? Use feedback analysis to identify them. Work on consolidating your strengths and making them work most effectively in your favor.
  • When hiring staff members, focus on their capabilities. Make sure their particular strengths match the key task they are be­ing recruited to perform.
  • Discuss the following question with your colleagues: “What do we need to do together to make more of, and build on, the strengths of our organization?”