In a chapter entitled “Making Strength Productive” in his 1967 book The Effective Executive, the “father of modern management,” Peter Drucker writes, “You cannot build performance on weaknesses. You can build only on strengths. To focus on weakness is not only foolish; it is irresponsible. It is a misuse of a human resource as what a person cannot do is a limitation and nothing else.”
It has taken decades for leadership research to catch up to Drucker’s leading-edge thinking. Pioneering organizations like Zenger Folkman now have a research body of assessments on over 50,000 leaders by more than 500,000 direct reports, managers, peers, and others who work directly with them. As first documented in their groundbreaking book, The Extraordinary Leader: Turning Good Managers into Great Leaders and updated last year in How to Be Exceptional: Drive Leadership Success by Magnifying Your Strengths strengths-based approaches are 2 – 3 times more effective than our traditional focus on weaknesses.
Here’s an example of data from one of Zenger Folkman’s studies showing the ratings of leadership effectiveness first using one set of 360 feedback assessments to form either weakness or strengths-based personal development plans, followed by a second 360 assessment to gage each group’s level of increased leadership effectiveness:
About a decade ago General Mills was one of the early pioneers working with Zenger Folkman to use a strengths-based approach in their leadership development. In his Foreword to How to Be Exceptional, Kevin Wilde, VP, Organization Effectiveness and Chief Learning Officer at General Mills wrote of the meeting he had with his skeptical CEO when they were considering this new strengths-based leadership development approach. He won over the CEO with this argument; “While some need to concentrate on fatal flaws, most of our leaders would be wasting their time making small, incremental improvements on a few, below-average scores that may not matter in the long run … if we concentrate all our efforts getting everyone to average, that is what we will achieve — a company of average leaders … we needed exceptional leaders with profound strengths that matter.”