Self-knowledge and strengths

“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Ask most people about their development goals and they will reel off a list of weaknesses that they want to address.  To compound this, that’s the way most performance management systems work: they tend to emphasise gaps and shortcomings.
We believe this approach is essentially wrong! 

The people who get to the top of organisations are not perfect and have often de-railed at some point in their lives, but without a doubt they have a lot of offer. There is where we could mull over the concept of incomplete leadership.  There’s a useful Harvard Business Review article referenced below.  The key point – we are all human: we all have flaws
So, how do we understand relative strength and weakness in a more sophisticated way?  As Pendleton and Furnham outlined in the second reference below, we might start off by reflecting on the interplay between character and experience.

Where someone’s essential character is cut out to do something and they have had lots of experience – that’s going to be a strength; an area that’s worth preserving and developing.

Potential, on the other hand, looks like lots of suitability to do something but not having had much practice; it’s exposure to more experience that’s needed here.  

Then there’s the useful idea of a fragile strength – something that a person has learned to do acceptably but they will never excel at, but they need to maintain the capacity to find workarounds.  

Finally, there’s resistant weakness – areas where they are not wired up that way and where they have never had the experience.  Why invest time and energy in developing these, especially if they are areas which can be delegated or re-allocated?
This all begs a fundamental question: how do we know what our character strengths are i.e. the areas we should invest our development time and energy in?  Here are some suggestions:

  • Have an in-depth development assessment with a business psychologist, where both the inner self and the shell that we show to the outside world are explored
  • Fill in the excellent questionnaire from VIA: it’s free and takes just 15 minutes
  • Try out StrengthsFinder 2.0 – a book and another nifty questionnaire 
  • Get some feedback – ask people what they see your strengths as and/or do a 360 assessment
Why is all of this so important?  Here, we draw on decades of research into positive psychology, happiness and human flourishing.  Accurately understand our strengths and play to them and we will be:
  • In better mental health, with lower levels of anxiety and depression
  • More productive and energetic
  • Enjoying better immunity from disease and be in better physical health
  • Feeling greater levels of self-confidence and self-esteem
  • More change-resilient
  • Quicker and more efficient learners
  • Much more engaged in our work
Further Reading
  • In Praise of the Incomplete Leader – Deborah Ancona, Thomas W. Malone, Wanda J. Orlikowski, and Peter M. Senge, Harvard Business Review, February 2007
  • Leadership – All You Need To Know – Pendleton, D., Furnham, A., 2006 
  • Strengthsfinder 2.0, Rath, T., 2007
  • Flourish, Seligman, M., 2011

To contact us directly please send an email to:

Do also have a look at our flagship book ‘Staying Sane in Business’ or check out our resources website, where you’ll find loads of other ideas and material:

To view an online version of this blog please click HERE

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