Leading From Strength

Leading from strength requires self-awareness and reflection, as well as an understanding of the organization and its current operating environment

Amazing leaders use their strengths as the focal point for their impact on the world. That’s true for top-notch organizations, too. But leading from strength isn’t always easy. There’s a lot of noise about what makes a good leader, but too often it’s based upon abstract, one-size-fits-all maxims that aren’t particularly helpful.

When Deloitte first conceptualized its strength-based leadership initiative in November 2012, recalls Chief Learning Officer and Director for Leader Development Ashley Goodall, it distilled a lot of the chatter about leadership by inverting the question from “What makes a good leader?” to “What do people follow?”

After a review of the research, three foundational commonalities emerged: People follow those they believe are acting for the good, those who help them grow, and those who are experts in a few relevant areas. Therefore, Goodall says, leading from strength “means using an amazing strength you’ve honed as the integration point for your impact on the world.”

A comparison of Apple founder Steve Jobs and Microsoft founder Bill Gates is a good example of strength-based leadership. “They had essentially the same job in the same industry, in the same era, yet they approached their roles very differently,” Goodall points out. “Gates’ talent was identifying what could be done with a computer that hadn’t been done before. Jobs couldn’t do that very well. His strength Hi was creating a user experience for a product. At that, he was one of the best on the planet.” The result is a near-ubiquitous computing platform for Microsoft, and, for Apple, a graphical user interface that has become the standard even at rival Microsoft.

Top performers all play to their strengths, Goodall says. Therefore, Deloitte’s Leader Development organization aims to identify approaches to help it support individuals’ unique strengths, rather than attempt to inculcate the same basic skills in everyone.

“Our approach is to identify where leading from strength already occurs, and to replicate that across the organization,” Goodall says. Therefore, in training, “we simulate a situation and identify ways to get a desired outcome, rather than only teaching specific skills,” he says.

Winning strategies depend upon the individual, and what is effective for one person may not work for another, depending upon their strengths. So, although weaknesses shouldn’t be ignored, the primary focus should be to optimize strengths to maximize their advantages. “At a human level, strengths don’t change, but you can grow and use them better,” Goodall emphasizes.

At Deloitte, learning to use those strengths more effectively involves integrating a communications platform into the corporate fabric that connects individuals with similar strengths to enable collaboration, mentoring, and sharing of best practices. “People need a place to curate their best self-expression to the rest of the firm,” Goodall says.

The objective is to make this a place people want to access because it is critical to their career success. It should include relevant details such as current projects (updated weekly), interests, and aspirations, as well as how colleagues can contact others for collaboration, advice, and support.

Phillips & Company, a global communications company based in Austin, TX, also believes in accelerating individual and organizational momentum by accessing strengths. Organization Development Manager Misty Pagel describes this as a “whole system mindset” that starts at the top. “When team members join the firm, they meet with the president and discuss their vision and the company vision. There is more than one path to leadership here, and multiple areas for growth to develop leadership.” One example of the company’s belief in the value of harnessing individuals’ strengths is its flat organizational structure. Company interns, Pagel says, report they can talk with anyone at any level and have opportunities throughout the organization.

One of the benefits of playing to one’s strengths, surprisingly, is that it also can help close gaps in expertise, Pagel says. “We encourage people to leave their comfort zones and use their strengths to grow. We hold people accountable and give productive feedback.”

The company’s leadership academy incorporates a component that helps individuals connect their passions to the organization and clients, as well as more general leadership skills. “We encourage people to locate development opportunities and to take responsibility for their own development,” she says.

Phillips & Company has a set of management and leadership competencies to help build a strength-based culture. They’re also a consideration when employees are hired. Accountability and team centeredness are two of the key elements, along with courage, resiliency, and vision.

Those elements are the foundation of the company, upon which other strengths are based. As corporate needs change, those competencies “let people know what’s expected and also who we are. Our competencies are the anchors of our organization. If we need to change to meet industry trends or to integrate new knowledge, we still have the anchor competencies,” Pagel says.

The approach is long term. “We encourage employees to think about relationships as long-term investments, both internally and with our clients and partners.”

The challenge in leading by strength is that, sometimes, those strengths are overplayed or overused. “We work with our strengths to overcome weaknesses and to enable us to compete. The problem is that we overuse them,” notes John Baldoni, chair of the Leadership Development practice at N2Growth and author of “Lead With Purpose” and other books.

“Many leaders are woefully un-self-aware. That comes from using one strength,” and being surrounded with sycophants, Baldoni says. “So, if boldness is a strength, be bold…but not too bold,” he cautions. Likewise, if straight talk is a strength, also learn to use tact. Know when to rely on other competencies.

At an organizational level, in the hospitality industry, for example, customer service must be a strength. Building that strength begins with hiring and training “people with a bias for service. Marriott is a great example,” Baldoni says. “It gives people autonomy at every level to keep the best interests of the customer in mind. Southwest Airlines is another example. When customer issues arise at Southwest, the organization defaults to the judgment of the employee. Because the organization supports its employees, it gets better customer outcomes.”

Well-defined focus is another benefit of leading from strength. Organizations that lead from strength focus on their core competencies and avoid the “bright, shiny objects” that become distracting, Baldoni says. Google is an example. Although it was formed as a search engine provider, “it was set up so innovation is part of its DNA.” From Google Books to Google Glass (and even a self-driving car developed jointly with Stanford University), it stays within its core areas of expertise—technology.

Leading from strength should be a top-down approach that affects each area of the organization. It challenges each individual to understand and use his or her own strengths to best advantage in each endeavor. That requires a degree of self-awareness and reflection, as well as an understanding of the organization and its current operating environment. This helps ensure that the strengths that are honed are aligned tightly with the corporate strategy to add value—both to the individual and to the organization.


By Dr. Kathryn D. Cramer, Managing Partner, The Cramer Institute, and author of “LEAD POSITIVE: What Highly Effective Leaders See, Say, and Do”

In my decades of experience as a psychologist and as managing partner of The Cramer Institute, I have found that people have a bias that follows the old 80/20 rule: Eighty percent of the time, we are on the alert for what is not working. Maybe if we’re lucky, 20 percent of the time we are focused on the upside of a given situation. But research shows that to leverage the possibilities present in any situation, we must find a way to move into positive emotional territory.

Asset-based thinking (ABT) means to look at yourself and the world through the eyes of what is working, what strengths are present, and what the potentials are. Conversely, deficit-based thinking means to look at yourself and the world in terms of what is not working, what is lacking, and the gaps between where you are and where you want to be.

Moving your perspective from the negative side of the ledger to the positive side creates a positive chain reaction. While conventional leadership approaches focus on acquiring industry expertise, strategic capability, and operational savvy, ABT zeros in on what the leader sees, says, and does. When the leader’s mindset is focused on what is strong, valuable, and possible, what he or she says and does will inspire for truly effective leadership.

Here are the three steps to leading with your strengths using asset-based thinking:

1. SHIFT WHAT YOU SEE. Think of a challenging situation you are facing right now. Acknowledge the negative aspects of what you see. They are probably true, but they are not helpful. By focusing your attention on what is wrong, you may be able to correct the mistake, but you also risk losing out on unforeseen opportunities, particularly in today’s rapidly changing business landscape. Now, scan more closely for at least one upside. There always will be at least one! Keep your focus on that upside, and what you need to do to achieve it
2. SHIFT WHAT YOU SAY. Connecting what you say to the positive evidence you see is the basis for inspiring and high-impact communication. There are three assets you can leverage when you speak: substance, sizzle, and soul. Substance refers to the content of what you say. It is your credibility card. Sizzle is the color and detail; it is about using your words and your voice to evoke emotion in your listeners. The soul of what you say refers to the why—why the message is so important to your listeners, your mission, and you.

What you say prepares you and the people you lead for what you need to do, for walking the talk. And ultimately what you do creates the results you seek. The next time you have to prepare a talk—for a meeting, a presentation, or even just a one-on-one conversation—run your words through the substance, sizzle, and soul filter. Make sure that what you see and what you say are aligned. Most importantly, mean what you say—and say something meaningful.

3. SHIFT WHAT YOU DO. Most of us know our gaps and our shortcomings a lot better than we know our strengths and capabilities. We don’t often think of these assets, and, as a result, they are not top of mind. But a deeply abiding sense of the ways we are already effective is a launching pad to better see and seek the rewards in any given situation.

For every time you become aware of failing, think of five things you did right. Take note of the skills you have been using. During stressful times, this top-of-mind awareness of your strengths will help you to muster your best efforts and marshal the efforts of others—in other words, to be a strong leader driving positive change.


By Andrea Backman, Ph.D., Dean, Jack Welch Management Institute (Jackwelch.strayer.edu)

Leadership is energy—the ability to energize and motivate teams to perform at their best.
Leadership is execution—making strategies and ideas happen.
Leadership is edge—making the tough calls.
Leadership, above all, is an unsinkable passion for the work you do.

According to CEO and management expert Jack Welch, these characteristics are the common denominator emerging leaders must possess. But these traits don’t show up as a line item on a resume. Too often, employers find that their employees may have the technical acumen for the job, but lack less quantifiable skills in communication, collaboration, teamwork, and other core leadership-based competencies.

This leadership skills gap is only widening in many of today’s organizations. In a 2013 survey of 500 senior executives by Adecco USA, 44 percent cited soft skills as the biggest deficiency. Furthermore, consulting firm Development Dimensions International’s 2011 leadership forecast—a survey of more than 12,000 business leaders—found that only 38 percent of respondents considered the quality of leadership in their organizations to be very good or excellent. Fostering creativity, managing change, executing organizational strategy, and developing talent were all on the list of most-needed abilities.

So how can companies close the gap?

Organizations should start with the interview. Credentials are important, but overemphasis on degrees and certifications can detract from determining whether a candidate possesses the right soft skills to develop into a true leader.

One way to assess soft skills is by asking questions about a candidate’s strategies for inspiring a team or posing a hypothetical business problem to solve. Asking about career passions also can provide insights. Is the prospect hungry to win? Passionate about making a difference? Energized by charting the right course? Committed to rewarding and celebrating big wins and continuously upgrading the team?

Finally, when checking references, explore beyond those offered by a job candidate. Employers often talk with a candidate’s manager to gather feedback on personality and performance, but rarely speak to a colleague or subordinate to gauge how the person works with others.

When it comes to existing employees, companies should implement a review process tied to measurable objectives that explicitly lays out desired values and leadership skills. Frequent conversations about goals and progress are essential; so are frequent moves to rank employees based on performance and behaviors.

At the Jack Welch Management Institute, for example, we’re using a performance management system called Evaluate to Win that allows managers and employees to have constant dialogue about alignment to our mission. Each employee enters concrete examples into the system weekly to describe how he or she is actively supporting the organizational values—how are the employee’s behaviors helping the organization win? Managers then provide feedback, helping the employee stretch, celebrate, and consider alternatives. Though it’s not a substitute for conversation, this strategy guarantees regular consideration of how individuals are helping to drive organizational success.

Great leaders are not just technical experts in their fields. They are people who love what they do, who always focus on winning, who challenge the status quo, and who have the energy and the ability to inspire teams to success—even against the odds.