Deciding What’s a Strength?As we heard at last month’s Canadian Positive Psychology Association conference, strengths-based approaches are rapidly spreading across fields of personal growth/development, education, leadership, organization effectiveness, community building, coaching, counseling, and others.

In our field of leadership/organization development we’re hearing more talk about strengths-based tools and techniques. But we’re often not talking about the same thing when discussing strengths. Like the different forms of beauty, quality, or intelligence, strengths are in the eye of the beholder. It boils down to definition, perception, and perspective.

Psychologist Ryan Niemiec, is Education Director at the VIA Institute on Character. VIA’s Character Strengths framework forms the backbone of Positive Psychology. I attended a few of Ryan’s workshops at the CPPA conference and found them highly useful. I’ve started reading his well-researched and written book, Mindfulness & Character Strengths: A Practical Guide to Flourishing.

Ryan provides a very useful distinction on the types of strengths:

  • Talents – innate abilities like IQ, musical, or athletic giftedness
  • Skills – proficiencies developed through training and development
  • Interests – personal passions like sports, arts, or hobbies
  • Values – personal beliefs, principles, or ideals
  • Resources – external supports such as social, community, or spiritual connections

These distinctions deepened my understanding of building strengths. Our strengths-based leadership development work with The Extraordinary Leader is clearly skill building. Getting skills feedback through a 360 assessment becomes a critical part of understanding how a leader is perceived by others and the people he or she is influencing or leading.

Skills or competencies often align with our talents, interests, or values. Self-assessment tools like StrengthsFinder or the VIA survey can provide insights to a leader’s personal preferences or what he or she considers to be his or her internal strengths.

However, self-assessments are often less helpful with strengthening leadership skills. As outlined in Beware the Self-Assessment Trap, self-assessment is only half as accurate as feedback from others.

An old Groucho Marx line is, “who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?” Different types of strengths depend on who’s perceiving them and whether they’re viewed from an internal or external perspective.