An Interview With Tom Rath and Barry Conchie
Authors of Strengths Based Leadership
Q: This book challenges conventional business wisdom, suggesting that leaders are not, in fact, well-rounded. Did the research surprise you? What exactly does it mean?
A: The concept of the "well-rounded leader" is prevalent in many organizations. You can see this in how organizations select leaders and in the emphasis they place on the kinds of development programs they offer. Typically, selection attempts to find leaders who are almost superhuman -- who exhibit such a wide range of characteristics that those claiming to possess them are barely credible.
The whole idea of the "competent leader" who is well-rounded just doesn't stand up to examination against the evidence. The research shows that the best leaders excel at a limited number of things, and they are smart enough to know it. Thus, they surround themselves with people who provide a balance of talents and attributes. Those claiming to be good at everything tend to be masters of none, and the most successful organizations are not led by average leaders.
Organizations also tend to promote a sense of well-roundedness in their development programs. It's simply ingrained. Many of these programs are remedial; they attempt to correct deficiencies. However, some of this development activity fails to consider whether the desired outcomes are actually achievable. There is little evidence, for example, that you can teach someone to come up with big ideas or to be a creative, out-of-the-box thinker. The return on investment for such development would be very low for an individual without thebasic talent set. Rather than try to develop well-rounded leaders, organizations should help leaders define their key strengths and figure out how to use them to the fullest extent and build teams with complementary strengths.
Q: Is leadership an acquired skill or an innate talent?
A: Clearly, there are essential talents that leaders possess to succeed at different organizational levels. Some of these talents would seem to be enduring, and they are difficult to develop in people who don't already have them. Whether these talents existed at birth or were socialized is not a focus of our research, but having individuals more clearly understand their strengths gives them a greater chance of being a successful leader.
Now, if we consider leadership as an attitude and behavior -- as the capacity to influence people and create followership -- then many more individuals have the capacity to lead than probably know it. People can be taught how to identify their strengths and how those strengths can be used to develop their leadership potential. This is true whether someone is a cashier at a supermarket or a junior lawyer working in a law firm. The right leadership development might not lead certain people to become CEOs, but it will help them build influence and followership and create a positive effect on the lives of those they encounter.
Q: Although the studies did not point to a single skill set that all leaders possess, they did identify four key features of all successful TEAMS -- skills that are shared between the leader and the followers. Can you tell us about these?
A: The four domains of leadership strength provide an effective framework for identifying balance in a team. Each of these domains is broad in nature, but taken together, they represent key aspects of effective leadership. We don't tend to find individual leaders who excel in each of the domains; in fact, we often find leaders who are more accomplished in maybe one or two of them. This is why it's important that, overall, a leadership team shows evidence of each of these leadership domains. If a leadership team is comprised of individuals who are all weak in Relationship Building, for example, that would seriously limit the effectiveness of the team and potentially cause some limitations in terms of their performance.
Q: Gallup made a point of studying not only leaders, but followers as well. Can you tell us why you think that's important?
A: So much has been written either by or about specific leaders or leadership generally. But very little research had been published on how followers view effective leaders -- leaders they look up to. We thought this was a major gap in knowledge, and we wanted to close it -- and in the process see what we could learn about how followers looked at leaders and the particular qualities they needed from those leaders.
This is an important area to study because it provides leaders with a different lens through which to consider their behavior, focus, and impact. The results of our research provide leaders with a powerful framework for thinking about their leadership. And in the book, we give specific advice about how to meet these follower expectations through a focus on strengths.
Q: You also discuss in the book how effective teams are also teams made up of engaged workers. Can you tell us why there is a connection between the two?
A: High and improving levels of employee engagement correlate positively to a variety of business outcomes such as productivity, profitability, and turnover. This correlation exists at the organizational, division, team, and individual levels. One engaged employee on a team of actively disengaged employees is going to have a hard time making the kind of positive impact that a whole team of engaged employees could make. As the most effective teams deliver the best results and outcomes, we find that these teams are also the most engaged.
Managers and leaders in organizations create the conditions for teams to be highly engaged. One key factor in raising levels of engagement is managers and leaders focusing on the strengths of individual employees. If managers can help employees understand and leverage their strengths -- help them do what they do best every day -- that will have a positive impact on engagement. While it is possible to have a productive team that is not engaged, our research tells us that this situation is not sustainable for the long term. Unless the level of engagement increases, performance could deteriorate.
Q: The book's research found that successful leaders are more likely to pick successors who do not possess the same skills as they do. Can you tell us why that is?
A: The most successful leaders tend to know their leadership strengths and how to leverage them. They also know their leadership weaknesses and recognize that unless they get help and support in these areas, they will not be as effective. Consequently, they tend to surround themselves with other leaders who compensate for their shortcomings. This focus on leadership talent sometimes supersedes a focus on technical proficiency and knowledge, and great leaders are often extremely patient in their search for the specific blend of talents that fit best.
Less effective leaders tend to see balance in teams as a result of combining people with specific technical expertise and specialized knowledge -- but their teams lack an essential diversity in talent. This is a very important distinction, and one too few leaders make. Our research shows that many leadership teams with average and below-average performance "self-replicate" this lack of talent diversity on the teams that report to them. Without a diversity of talent -- and the range of perspectives that goes with it -- teams can miss growth opportunities altogether.
Q: What do you believe is the hallmark of effective leadership?
A: The most effective leaders are those who are aware of their strengths and who have fully optimized them. They are clear about their weaknesses and have found strategies, support mechanisms, and partners to successfully compensate for them.
Effective leaders assemble technically proficient and knowledgeable teams using these same principles, and they establish high and improving levels of engagement across the organization. They ensure that their leadership teams have abundant talent to strategically think, build relationships, influence, and execute.
Their leadership is stable and predictable. They show that they care about people. They operate with high levels of trust, and they inspire hope and optimism among their followers. They harness all of these elements to deliver world-class performance.