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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Optimising strengths

James Brook explains how to encourage good leadership habits, invest in building complementary teams and challenge people to give their best 


Business skills
©Gary Waters/Ikon
The most effective leaders push the boundaries of thinking and possibility, looking for innovative ways to achieve the organisation’s goals

There are lots of different approaches to leadership, many of which are highly prescriptive about the type of qualities and behaviours you need to be effective. For example, so-called ‘trait-based approaches’ talk about the importance of charisma, persuasiveness and decisiveness in determining leadership success.

However, recent research shows that successful leaders have very different personalities and attributes to draw on to achieve their results. Leaders are not necessarily well-rounded people, nor do they all possess the same qualities and competencies. Like everyone else, they have strengths and vulnerabilities and need to discover and optimise their strengths, as well as reducing performance risk areas, in order to succeed.

In today’s volatile environment, where organisations are all being challenged by fast-shifting social, political, economic and technological forces, leaders are being asked to do more with less; to work smarter and optimise the energy, ideas and morale of their workforce. They therefore need to inspire and empower individuals and teams to optimise their strengths and adapt these to ever-changing requirements. They also need to continuously stretch people to push the boundaries and achieve in the upper range of their collective strengths and capabilities.

Based on extensive research, we have identified the following principles leaders should embrace to ensure they deliver positive and peak-performing workplaces.

Choose a positive mindset
Each day, all of us face challenges and opportunities. For leaders, choosing how to respond in any given situation provides a ‘moment of truth’. Such moments determine a leader’s effectiveness and their impact on individuals, teams and the organisation.

Most leaders find themselves alternating between the two paths outlined in Figure 1 (below).
Their assumptions, beliefs and interpretation of a situation place them at some point on either path and directly influence how they react to their circumstances. Other leaders have a tendency to stay more on one path than the other, based on habitual ways of thinking.

The lower path, the ‘path of limitation’, drives thought and actions narrowed by a negative mindset that focuses on problems, issues, failures, weaknesses and independent action. It results in fear, mistrust and pessimism. This in turn fuels a culture of learned helplessness, where individuals and teams feel isolated and unable to progress. This self-doubt leads to lower performance and undesirable and unintended consequences, such as missing business targets.

The upper path, the ‘path of possibility’, is more productive. Thoughts and actions are broadened and focused on strengths, successes, opportunities, solutions and building collaborative partnerships. Leadership is based on trust, hope, optimism, purpose and energy-boosting habits.
This, in turn, leads to a sense of powerfulness, positive energy, confidence and meaning at work, which fuels higher performance.

It is important to understand where you are at any point in time, and to understand the implications of your mindset on your performance and that of others you work with. Identifying those triggers that move you to any stage of the ‘path of limitation’ will enable you to recalibrate, change course and stay on the performance-enhancing ‘path of possibility’.

Research shows that even if leaders generally have a negative mindset and spend most of their time on the lower path, they can choose to focus more attention on the positive aspects of performance. After a few months, new habits will form around this new mindset and they will generate a more positive performance climate for themselves and others.

Figure 1

Optimise your leadership edge
Understanding your leadership edge is the first step in the journey to great leadership. Leaders need to develop good self-awareness and make the most of who they are at their best.

We refer to this as finding your ‘leadership edge’, which is derived from the unique and powerful strengths and qualities you bring to the way you lead.

Once discovered and acted upon, your leadership edge inspires those around you to perform at their best and achieve exceptional results. It has four aspects.

  1. Aspirations – what you aspire to achieve through your leadership and contribution; the lasting legacy you wish to leave
  2. Strengths – underlying qualities that energise you, things you are good at, or have the potential to be great at
  3. Values – principles and guiding beliefs that are important to you and anchor your career and life decisions
  4. Abilities – natural or acquired talents and skills where you have an opportunity to shine.

Effective leaders know better than to try to be someone they are not. They stay true to who they are at their best, and make sure they optimise their unique mix of strengths, skill and experience.

Stretch leadership habits
Self-awareness must be followed by ongoing learning and ‘stretch’; effective leaders are lifelong learners. The most successful leaders push the boundaries of thinking and possibility, looking for new and innovative ways of doing things to achieve the organisation’s goals, while advancing their own career. They never stand still and they adopt four ‘stretch leadership habits’ (see figure 2, below): sharing vision; sparking engagement; skilfully executing; and sustaining progress. In doing so, they create: a clear sense of purpose; a passionate and engaged workforce; clear, scalable processes that deliver value to the customer; and a culture of peak performance and continuous improvement.

Any leader can learn these leadership habits through on-the-job experience, engaging others for coaching and support and training and education programmes.

Focus on strengths but don't ignore performance risks
Prior to the strengths-based approach to leadership development, the emphasis on employee development in most organisations was principally centred on overcoming deficits or weaknesses. A compelling body of evidence over the past two decades shows the limitations of focusing on resolving weaknesses. This is an approach that tends to undermine engagement, performance and confidence. ‘Strengths’ practitioners recommend moving away from this deficit-orientated approach towards one that is focused on leaders’ and employees’ strengths, helping them use these to maximise performance outcomes.

However, weaknesses and other performance risks should not be ignored. These include limiting weaknesses, overdone strengths – or strengths that are overused or used in the wrong way and cause unintended negative outcomes – and sources of interference. The latter can be either internal, such as psychological blockers frustrating peak performance, self-limiting beliefs and poor self-confidence. Or they can be external, such as an incompatible corporate culture or lack of sufficient resources.

We advocate three simple strategies for dealing with such risks: using your own strengths to compensate for risk areas, bringing in others with strengths you lack to complement you, and building new habits to mitigate areas of risk and prevent failure.

Adopt a 80/20 rule in your personal development: spend 80% of your development time discovering and building on your strengths, with the remainder allocated to overcoming risk areas, specifically limiting weaknesses and overdone strengths.

Challenge people to give their best
The most effective leaders positively stretch themselves, their people and the organisation at multiple levels to achieve organisational goals as well as strengthen their own leadership and learning.

These leaders know there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach for getting the best from others. They discover their employees’ strengths and create an engaging and challenging environment that allows employees to use and stretch their strengths, empowering them by providing support and coaching to ensure they have the best chance of success.

Leaders who regularly challenge their people to move outside their comfort zone and use their strengths in new and different ways can expect exceptional performance and positive employee engagement.

Invest in building complementary teams
Effective teamwork is imperative for leaders in order to do more with less, improve collaboration, raise performance and ensure the pace and quality of innovation is high. Helping individuals identify their strengths and how these can best be deployed to contribute to team goals will create higher levels of clarity and accountability as well as promoting greater levels of autonomy.
Encouraging complementary partnering within the team, where team members support colleagues in areas where they are weaker or less developed with their standout strengths, is also a powerful way to improve team morale, trust and effectiveness.

Building a high level of strengths awareness enables the team to adapt to changing goals, stakeholder needs and processes more quickly, as well as pinpointing strength and skill areas that might be lacking to meet future requirements.

Figure 2

Cast a positive shadow
Through their day-to-day actions, leaders influence their stakeholders and the organisation in different ways. Their influence can be small, moderate or powerful. It can also be positive or negative in terms of its impact on productivity, morale and wellbeing.

In other words, leaders can cast a strong and positive shadow on others every day, ensuring they bring about positive change and sustained performance improvement over time.

In order to build a positive, energised culture that promotes excellence, leaders need to show the way. They should be mindful and intentional about identifying, valuing and building on others’ strengths and successes. This will encourage others to find their natural strengths and optimise them to deliver peak performance.

This article was adapted from Optimize Your Strengths: Use Your Leadership Strengths To Get The Best Out Of You And Your Team, by James Brook and Dr Paul Brewerton (Wiley, 2016)

James Brook is joint founder and managing director of Strengths Partnership