November 7, 2019

Have you seen the recent exchange between Adam Grant and Marcus Buckingham at the Wharton Analytics Conference, where they discussed whether you can overuse your strengths?

Check it out—it’s only three minutes, and it illustrates a big-time misunderstanding that the strengths movement perpetuates in talent management, coaching, and leadership development circles:

Confusion is apparent as the two talk past each other. Adam said, “I have a colleague who is extremely charismatic and that strength becomes a crutch…,” to which Marcus replies emphatically, “I would strongly disagree… You can never have too much of a strength.” It is unclear if Marcus reframed what Adam actually said to beg the question of whether one can have too much of a strength or if he is just confused himself on the distinction between doing too much and having too much.

Either way, it leads to superficial and misguided advice for those who care about leadership, performance, and development. The issue is not whether a leader has too much charisma, intelligence, drive, empathy, or any other skill. The issue is how the leader uses those skills. Marcus seems to get this when he later says, “What we are talking about here is intelligence… You can use your strengths unintelligently.” But the rhetoric and sequence of ideas is misleading in ways that may sneak by and lead you to unfounded practices and even to sound silly to an executive audience. 

First is that overusing one’s strengths is an “unintelligent” use of them. It is surprising that the conversation skipped over that point especially since it is the ostensible topic of discussion. It’s hard to imagine a sharp executive missing the oversight.

Second, there is some fuzzy thinking about what an overused strength is. I have studied the topic for over 20 years in behavioral science research and in my practice of executive assessment and development.  This work was inspired by Morgan McCall and Mike Lombardo’s ground-breaking research at the Center for Creative Leadership in the 1980s on career derailment and their finding that the same strengths that get leaders to the top can, ironically, take them over the edge. 

We have documented two ways of overusing a strength:

(1)   By applying a skill or capability to a greater degree than necessary for the desired result

or

(2)   By misapplying a skill or capability in situations where another one would work better

With respect to the first, there is the example of excessive force in police work ("too much of a good thing”). With respect to the second, there is the example of telling a direct report how to build a spreadsheet instead of delegating the task of analyzing a budget (“when you have a big hammer, every problem looks like a nail”).

(For a full analysis of how strengths become weaknesses through overuse, see this 2009 HBR article; see also Tony Schwartz’s recent discussion of classic examples in leadership.)

Overused strengths are defined by their impact on other people or in terms of the outcomes they produce. This is a shift in emphasis: Suggesting someone has too much of a particular strength puts the focus on the person; suggesting that they overuse a strength puts the focus on the consequences of how that strength is used. Leadership is about getting things done through others. Therefore, assessment, feedback, and development should focus on how leaders use their strengths in terms of the impact on other people, team dynamics, and results.

This points to bigger problems with the strengths-based approach to leadership and leadership development. It doesn’t square with decades of study from many different teams of researchers on executive performance, development, and derailment. And the strengths approach reinforces an individual bias, a sort of corporate cult of personality focused on the individual leader, that obscures the point: Leadership is fundamentally about influencing individuals to work together to get results. A stronger and more intelligent approach to leadership and development focuses less on the leader per se and more on the leader’s impact on organizational performance.

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