“Never half ass two things, whole ass one thing.”

A motto to work by, spoken by a true leader, Ron Swanson, Parks, and Recreation.

Ok, so Ron Swanson may not be the greatest example of a leader in all areas, but he sure makes a valid point with this statement. What this says to me, regarding leadership, is it’s more productive to work on one strength than two weaknesses.

This sentiment also rang out pretty loud recently when I read an article in Forbes magazine about reading results of 360 feedback. (And we’ll talk more about 360 feedback in another blog.) Which is why I want to discuss it. The article looked at the results of some 360 feedback of leaders, and with it, the author uncovered an interesting question.

As a leader, is it better for you to work on your strengths or your weaknesses?

The author of this particular article, Joseph Folkman, first looks at the benefits of 360 feedback for management––in particular, a leader receiving feedback from their direct reports. He points out the benefits his data uncovered.

“The direct reports’ feedback about their manager predicted the engagement of the team, customer satisfaction scores, personnel turnover, and profitability with the highest accuracy of all groups of raters.

(Just one example of why we conduct 360s, and how they can attribute to leadership development.)

But what happened when managers were given negative feedback? Folkman spoke of recipients in leadership roles taking quite a blow from the negative feedback, and as a result, urging them to focus on their weaknesses. And here is where the guts of it lies.

This is a natural response from our egos, to look at fixing weaknesses. Naturally, we want to be liked, so we first focus on the areas that need improving––the weaknesses in our performance. But according to Folkman’s data (and the mighty Ron Swanson), this isn’t the most effective way to improve your leadership performance.

In a small study done almost a decade ago by Folkman and a colleague, using the results of 360 feedback, it was discovered almost 70% of leaders would have been better off focusing on their strengths rather than their weaknesses. His results uncovered data that supported leadership effectiveness would come from improving strengths rather than weaknesses. Such results he explained were:

Our research indicated that the overall effectiveness of a leader with no strengths was at the 34th percentile. Possessing just one strength almost doubled a leader’s effectiveness, boosting their perceived overall effectiveness from the 34th to the 64th percentile. As you can see from the graph below, having just three strengths pushed a leader’s effectiveness to the 81st percentile, and five strengths moved a leader into the top 10% of all leaders.”

There was a lot more data in his report, but the essence of the philosophy is there. And it makes sense to me. So the question again, why wouldn’t you want to spend energies to improve on your weaknesses––isn’t this a positive step?

It’s a pretty legit question. I mean, it’s sort of natural to think improvement means tending to your weaknesses. But will that make you a good leader or just lift you fair and square into mediocrity?

Let’s stack up the odds in another way.

Imagine you’re a horse trainer and you’re running three horses in a race. Two of them have no chance of making a place, and one is running well but isn’t quite a winner. Are you better spending your time training the two bad runners, to make a place, or would you be better off focusing your energies on training a winner?

You want a winner, of course. That’s what you’re in the game for, right?

Well, the way I see it, and Joseph Folkman points out, the same goes for leadership. You really should aspire to excel in something. And when assessing feedback, don’t focus too much on the negative, rather look at the positives and work on strengthening them. Otherwise, are you just simply good at what you do, when you could be incredible at what you’re good at?

What do you think?


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