focus on strengths, not what is missing

One of my favorite podcasts is Terry O’Reilly’s “Under the Influence,” focused on the advertising and marketing business. Terry’s a master story-teller. He continually finds unusual and interesting stories to start each podcast. His recent podcast, “Setting the Table: Best Opening Stories,” looked back at his stories from over 300 episodes that generated the most listener feedback. A top-rated story about a one-armed martial artist was especially intriguing.

A young man lost his left arm in a car crash. He was determined to continue pursuing his dreams and studied martial arts. As he progressed, he asked his teacher, or sensei, if he was good enough to enter competitions. His sensei said he could be with intense training, especially learning one very difficult throw. They practiced the extremely difficult technique over and over until the student had mastered it.

The sensei said he was now ready to compete. “But shouldn’t I learn more moves?” the student asked. He teacher said, “This is an extremely advanced technique, and you can use it to win.”

At the day of the tournament, the young man easily won the first few matches. But in the final match, he was losing so badly that the referee was about to call it off. “Let him continue,” the sensei insisted. Soon after the match resumed, his opponent made a critical mistake. The young man instantly saw his chance to use the difficult technique he’d practiced for months. He grabbed him, threw him, and pinned his bigger and stronger opponent to win the tournament.

On the way home, the young man asked his teacher how he could win the tournament by relying on just that one technique. The sensei said, “You won for two reasons. First, you mastered one of the most difficult throws in all of judo. Second, the only defense for that move is for your opponent to grab your left arm.”

This story illustrates how a profound strength can overcome a weakness. Our work with The Extraordinary Leader process shows that whether it’s in an online/personal workshop or through one-on-one coaching, leveraging strengths is much more effective. Numerous pre-post studies show building leadership strengths is 2 – 3 times more effective than fixing weaknesses.

So often leaders review their 360 feedback and are seduced by the dark side to focus on what they don’t have — like missing an arm — than on developing their strengths to overcome that gap. We continually see that towering strengths can overcome weaknesses.

Are you and your leaders leveraging your strengths? Don’t let deeply a conditioned focus on what’s wrong throw you.

Further Reading and Research