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Want to be the best leader you can? Stop focusing on the worst version of yourself

by Kelly Scherer on

When I have a coaching session or am delivering feedback to leaders, the first thing they usually want to know is “What do I need to change?” or, if they went through a 360-feedback process, “What negative things did my coworkers have to say about me?”

This response is natural, particularly for high achievers who are under a lot of pressure to perform at work. It can be hard to reframe our minds away from this perspective. We want to be the best version of ourselves, but it’s hard to get there if you’re only focusing on the worst version.

This reaction may also have its roots in the history of corporate coaching. At the beginning, coaching and leadership development tended to be more about “jerk fixing”. Executives would hire coaches to “fix” their “problem child” leaders. These problem leaders would typically be top performers results-wise – but possess terrible people skills. With that background in mind, it’s understandable that from your coach, you’d expect to hear about all the problems you need to fix; that, surely, is the reason you’re even getting feedback.

However, our industry has become less about fixing jerks and more about making great leaders even better. Being both an executor of results through a team and a supportive, relationship-oriented leader are now table stakes for sought-after leadership roles. So where do we go from here?

Rather than solely focusing on tempering jerk-like tendencies (of course, these are still prevalent and certainly need to be taken out of play in order for a leader to survive and ascend), focus on strengths as much as development opportunities. This paradigm has been well-documented in research and practice, for instance in Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive or the Gallup StrengthsFinder.

Again, this goes against our natural tendency to want to fix ourselves. But fixing ourselves is often not as feasible as adapting our behavior by focusing on our strengths.

WHAT IT MEANS TO FOCUS ON YOUR STRENGTHS

Maybe your development opportunity is “to engage a room as a charismatic leader.” But what if you weren’t born with Tony Robbins-like stature and charisma? Let’s face it – few of us are. Then development in this area can feel impossible, as if you need to change your personality to be a successful leader.

But if you focus on your strengths, addressing this development area becomes much more manageable. Let’s say you motivate others through your ability to listen and your curiosity in wanting to understand others’ points of view. You could leverage this skill to engage and motivate your audience by talking with individuals one-on-one prior to your meeting. In such meetings, you’ll build genuine rapport and understand others’ needs, thus filling in a developmental gap (influencing an audience) with a strength you already have. No personality change needed.

Strengths are things that 1) are unique to you and probably already part of your reputation, 2) you’re good at, and 3) you enjoy. The more you can play to your strengths by either leveraging them in new or bigger ways, or leverage them to fill in a gap, the better.

THINK ABOUT YOUR REPUTATION

Now where does this leave us? We don’t suggest ignoring development areas altogether: that would be neither productive nor practical. But we do advocate for a mindset shift from a sole focus on development opportunities, weaknesses and critical feedback to a more balanced mindset that considers both strengths and opportunities.

When receiving feedback, it can feel like drinking water from a fire-hose. We encourage recipients of feedback to focus on 2-3 tangible development actions, seeking a balance of strengths and opportunities. Don’t overdo it with trying to “fix” or “enhance” everything; that’s not manageable. Focus on your reputation – ask yourself what you want that to be in six months, one year, or five years, and work towards that.

We want to know:
  1. What developmental approach have you found most helpful to yourself or your colleagues?
  2. Do you find it difficult – for yourself or your team – to maintain a balanced perspective around development?
  3. In your organization, how do you strike a balance between celebrating strengths and having an open dialogue about development gaps?

Let us know in the comments!

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