Mar 31

Realising Strengths

Heinz Landau
Heinz Landau is a seasoned business leader who has gained valuable working and leadership experience on three different continents.

“Success is achieved by developing our strengths, not by eliminating our weaknesses”, Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener stated during a recent seminar organized by ENPEO Consulting in Bangkok where he and myself were the two keynote speakers. The title of the seminar was “Positive Leadership – Impact on Organization and Business Results”. While Robert shared the latest frameworks and research on positive psychology and positive leadership, I shared some insights on how I have applied positive and caring leadership in Thailand.

Robert is a world thought leader in the application of positive psychology to individuals and organizations.  He has trained thousands of professionals in Europe, Asia, Africa and North America. Robert is the author of the books “Positive Psychology Coaching: Putting the Science of Happiness to Work for Your Clients” and “Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth”. His latest book which will be published next month is titled “The Strengths Book : Be Confident, Be Successful, and Enjoy Better Relationships by Realising the Best of You”.

Strengths-based management was one of the focus topics of Robert’s seminar talk. Instead of focusing on an individual’s weaknesses and helping him to improve his skills in those areas, you should focus on his strong points and allow him to use those to his full potential.

Peter Drucker, the Austrian-American management guru, urged us already more than 40 years ago in his book “The Effective Executive” to move away from the weakness-based approach. Today, in companies, these weaknesses are concealed as competency gaps and typically, the focus is then on closing the gaps rather than building on strengths. Also in schools, today the emphasis is still on improving poorer grades rather than attaining excellence in areas of strength. Peter Drucker stated that it takes far less energy to move from first-rate performance to excellence than it does to move from incompetence to mediocrity!

Along the same line of thoughts, in their article “How to Play to Your Strengths”, Harvard Business Review, January 2005, L.M. Roberts, G. Spreitzer, J. Dutton, R. Quinn, E. Heaphy and B. Barker stated that you have more to gain by developing your gifts and leveraging your natural skills than by trying to repair your weaknesses. They have developed a tool called the Reflected Best Self (RBS) that helps people understand and leverage their individual talents.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to attend an executive training at the University of Michigan on the topic Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS). The RBS exercise was part of it and I found it very useful. It enabled me to understand better where I am at my personal best and to apply my strengths more often.

What are strengths anyway? Prof. Alex Linley, founding director of the Center for Applied Positive Psychology  in England ( gives the following definition:

“Strengths are the things that we are good at and that give us energy when we are doing them. Using our strengths helps us perform at our best and deliver results.”

Many of us confuse our learned behaviours with our strengths. If we are good at something, but it drains us to do it, it is a learned behaviour. Our strengths can be realized strengths, that we get to use regularly, or unrealised strengths, that we don’t have the opportunity to use so much. Our weaknesses are the things that we are not good at doing and that also drain us.

Although we should normally focus on our strengths, we need to address our weaknesses, in case they are mission-critical. In such a case, the weaknesses have to be brought up to an acceptable standard.

During the seminar, Robert used a great metaphor to illustrate the importance of strengths. He asked the audience to imagine that they are sitting in a sailboat that is having a hole through which water is coming inside the boat. Now, patching the hole (= fixing our weaknesses) prevents us from sinking. But we still don’t move. Only, if we use our sails (=strenghts), we will move.

During his talk, Robert emphasized that , as a manager, you have to develop your own ability to spot and label strengths. I was impressed to observe Robert in action in this regard. Robert claimed that he can spot strenghts in a person after asking only one single question and letting the person answer for a period of only 30 seconds. There was quite some curiousity and scepticism in the audience, but Robert delivered.

The question that he is always asking is: “What are you looking forward to in the next two weeks?” In one case, one young lady stated that she is looking forward to go with her father on a skiing trip to Switzerland. I thought Robert might possibly label the strength as an adventurer or an explorer. But no, he was spot-on and he called it “relationship deepener”. I know the lady very well. I would they that her relationship to her parents and her brother is much more intensive and deeper than in normal cases. She has a very strong family orientation. Actually, she is the daughter of the owner family of a big company. Her strength of family-ness helps her a lot in the office environment, since she is able to create a real family atmosphere among employees.

Now, how was Robert able to spot the above stated strength of the lady (actually, he identified two more strengths) so quickly? As he explained, he observes the person very closely. He is watching for what he calls “baseline energy versus spikes”. Spikes are occuring when e.g. he observes physical arousal, eyes rise, hand gestures, a smile, faster talking etc. Robert also monitors the tone of the voice. When he notices a shift in passion, energy and engagement, it is probably a strength. He also listens to words and phrases like “I enjoy…, I love to…, It’s great when…” etc. which are indicators for strengths.

Apart from Gallup’s Strengthfinder – test, an even  more sophisticated way of realising your strengths is to go for the Realise 2  – test of the Center of Applied Positive psychology ( Realise 2 assesses 60 attributes that are then classified into strengths (realised and unrealised strengths), learned behaviours and weaknesses. By the way, the test is called Realise 2 because of the twofold meaning of the word realise: a) realising in the sense of being aware of your strengths and b) realising in the sense of applying your strengths.

The benefits of strengths-based management are manifold. Knowing what your strengths are will help you to use them more effectively. People who use their strengths more are happier, more confident and have higher levels of energy and vitality. They perform better and are more engaged at work.

So, aren’t these reasons enough to leave the flawed paradigm of the weakness-based approach once and for all behind? Let’s move over to strengths-based management through building on our and other people’s strengths enabling us to realise the best of  all of us.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 31st, 2010 at 13:09 and is filed under Human Resources, Leadership, Management. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.

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  1. Stefan Wallrapp says:

    Dear Mr. Landau,

    First I want to say that I highly appreciate, as maybe many other readers do, that you and the other authors regularly share your thoughts and give us the opportunity to learn from your broad life experience. Second, now I just want to share my little thought/comment with you regarding the written article above.

    I’m just wondering about your statement that management level of firms used to lead their people based on the so-called “weakness-based approach” . Isn’t it a rather logical and natural thought that it is much better to put people on tasks/problems that we know is best for them, or in other words that fits best their skills and capabilities? Thought it was by all time the unwritten law to recruit people only when we believe that they are the best or show clear strengths for certain tasks & responsibilities, though (as you said) certain weaknesses must be lifted to an “acceptable” standard. So, every leadership style that is merely/largely focused on “weakness-based approach” must be doomed to fail as it causes fear and uncertainty, undermining the unlifted potential of strength that is within everyone of us.

    Good article, hope to get further input from you and the others. Wish you a good business week with your new employer Mr. Landau.

    Best regards from Germany/Munich

    Stefan Wallrapp

  2. Heinz Landau Heinz Landau says:

    Dear Mr. Wallrapp,

    First of all, let me thank you for your kind words. I hope that we wil have soon again an opportunity to meet each other in Bangkok during one of your holiday trips.

    The weakness-based approach is still widely used in many areas. For example, any consultancy firm that you hire will start with the question “What is your problem? What is going wrong?” Of course, if you look for problems, you will find them. And if you look for more problems, you will find more of them , bringing you into a negativity spiral.

    With people management, it is often similar. Feedback talks focus often on what was going wrong (the weaknesses) rather than what was going right. And as you rightly pointed out, it is undermining our strengths and can lead to lots of frustration.

    Thanking you again for your comments.

    Best regards,
    Heinz Landau