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What are you great at?
I just couldn’t stick with it.
It didn’t work for me.
I need a better tool to automate this.
It’s easy for Jill; she’s just better at this than I am.
We’ve all heard them. We’ve all made them. Excuses abound for why many of us don’t stick to—or in some cases don’t even set—personal growth goals.
What if it were as simple as just changing the target? Often, I see leaders set targets that are based on someone else’s life and abilities, or based on the latest book, or based on fixing—once and for all—the weakness that is holding us back.
In their seminal book on the topic Now, Discover Your Strengths, Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton suggest that we will each ultimately realize greater success and satisfaction by focusing on the things that we naturally excel at. Buckingham expounds on this in Stand Out—and our research at Linkage, inclusive of data from more than 135,000 leaders worldwide, concludes that the most effective leaders encourage their teams to draw on one another’s strengths, while the least effective ones focus largely on adhering to a standard process to make sure that the right people are involved in a project. The winning combination necessary to achieve success is having the right people on the team and figuring out how to best leverage their talents.
Identifying the one or two areas where you and your team can become world-class is about more than just finding something you love. For instance, I love to golf. Love it. And I’ve shown flashes of being better than okay. But I’m reasonably certain that even if I dedicated every day to it for the next 10 years, I would not approach world-class.
And even if I did have the natural talent to be a PGA player, I wouldn’t one day find out or “discover” that ability. In fact, our work has led us to the conclusion that learning to use our strengths is partially discovery, partially creation, and partially making the most of what we have.
When it comes to discovery, there are some tried-and-true ways to help you uncover your strengths:
- When you are performing an activity, do you achieve states of flow? This is also known as “the zone,” when you feel a state of full immersion, energized focus, extreme animation—where time almost stands still (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow, 1990). If you experience rapid improvement when learning something new, this is a good sign that you have natural talent in this area.
- Take advantage of the many great assessment tools available out there. I like the Gallup StrengthsFinder and some of the tools focused on finding purpose developed by Richard Leider.
- And last but not least, don’t discount the value of getting feedback from friends and family. Those who know us best can be a great window into our talents.
The development of our strengths can be a little less glamorous, requiring time and practice, practice, practice. This is where the 10,000-hours rule (researched by Anders Ericcson, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, disputed by many) comes in. Finding something that we are naturally well-suited for and then working like crazy at it year in, year out—for years, even decades—is where we have the potential to create our biggest impact and ultimately feel the greatest fulfillment.
If Michael Jordan was satisfied by merely playing casual pick-up games after school, he might have reached stardom in the local men’s basketball league, but he certainly never would have earned an astounding six NBA Championship rings.
There is no question that it takes toil to hone a talent into strength. But, with hard work and persistence, it is possible. And, it requires finding that extra drive from within—and following your passion.
It’s when your eyes wear out from trying to get five pages of your dissertation written in between your evening classes and a 7 AM shift at work—but you do it anyway.
It’s when your mind gets crossed trying to rationalize two conflicting pieces of data that you keep mulling over and then, all of a sudden, something clicks and what was once an unsolvable paradox is suddenly a brilliant solution that you’d never seen before.
It’s when you know you’re the only one up at 5 AM and you’ve successfully gotten to the gym and cleared out your email inbox before anyone else has hit the snooze button.
The third and final area to help us leverage our strengths is recognizing and making the most of what we have. The reality is that when it comes time to perform, we’ve got what we’ve got. There is a legend (I couldn’t verify if true or not) about famed violinist Itzhak Perlman, who started playing a concert in New York City, only to have one of the strings on his violin break. But, it’s what he did next that shocked his audience. He proceeded to do the impossible and give a master performance on a violin with just three strings. Whether true or not, the metaphor is hard to forget. He prepared his entire life to perfect music on an instrument with four strings—and yet when it came time to deliver, he had to play on three in front of one of the most demanding crowds in the world. And, he proceeded to play a masterpiece.
Maybe our job as leaders, as individuals, is to get out our three-stringed violin (let’s be honest, most of us are playing with three strings) and play the best music we can. Right here. Right now. And keep playing.
How did you discover your strengths as a leader? What advice would you add to this list? Please share your thoughts and reflections below, or with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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