How to Find Your Strengths to be an Exceptional Leader

[Side note: A family emergency happened yesterday causing me to need to concentrate and take care of my wife this week. I will not be posting any new content this week (Though I might be posting a quote post or repost). I will also be mainly offline for the next several days.]

This post is written by Paul Sohn who writes at Salt+Light. He has a passion to equip, empower, and transform people and organizations into kingdom-minded world changers. Paul is an author of He Said, She Said, and YOU?: Your Pit Stop for Inspiration which you can download here. You can connect with him on Facebook and LinkedIn.

Far too many leaders lead without a thorough understanding of their strengths. Three years ago, I stumbled on an article from Harvard Business Review, Making Your Indispensable, where the authors Zenger and Folkman inspired me to embark on a self-discovery project, helping me discover my objective strengths that will accelerate my leadership journey.

The authors suggest that good leaders can become exceptional by developing just a few of their strengths to the highest level —but not by merely doing more of the same. Instead, they need to engage in the business equivalent of cross-training —that is, to enhance complementary skills that will enable them to make fuller use of their strengths. For example, technical skills can become more effective when communication skills improve.

Step 1: Identify Objective Strengths

Leadership is less about how you view yourself but more about how others view you. That’s why I conducted a 360 degree feedback. I have selected a group of cross-sectional individuals who I felt could provide objective feedback.

First, I established a baseline by conducting a self-assessment of my top strengths. Then, I asked these individuals to identify my top five strengths and three weaknesses with specific reasons. I utilized Zenger and Folkman’s 16 Leadership Competencies Framework which outlines major strengths by category (e.g., character, personal capability, getting results etc) supported by multiple complementary strengths.

The questions I’ve asked are the following:

1. What leadership skills do you think are strengths to me?
2. Is there anything I might do that might be considered a fatal flaw?
3. What leadership ability, if outstanding would have the most significant impact on the effectiveness of the organization?

Step 2: Choose a Strength to Focus On

A strength you feel passionate about that is not important to your organization is essentially a hobby, and a strength the organization needs you don’t feel passionate is just a chore. You actually need both.

In order to identify your “passions”, here are some questions to think about:
• Do I look for ways to enhance this skill?
• Am I energized, not exhausted, when I use it?
• Can I imagine devoting time to improving it?
• Would I enjoy getting better at this skill?

If you have answered “yes” to these questions, this was a solid way to quantify your passions.

For example, my top five “passions” are:
1. Self-development
2. Problem solving
3. Communicate powerfully and broadly
4. Inspires and motivates others
5. Relationship building

Once I collected all the feedback from 15 individuals, I tabulated the results on a spreadsheet. (I highlighted my top five strengths below).

After this, I summarized my key findings into the three categories below and looked for alignment.

1. My Competencies (which are gleaned from the top 5 strengths from 15 contributors),
2. My Passions (through asking questions through the evaluative framework), and
3. Organizational Needs (which in this context is consulting which is where I eventually want to be in)

Step 3: Select a Complementary Behavior

People who excel at motivating others are good at persuading them to take action and to go the extra mile. In my case, self-development is considered one of my dominant strengths. To amplify this strength, I looked at the complementary skills:

• Listens
• Displays honesty and integrity
• Inspires and motivates others
• Provides effective feedback and development
• Takes initiative
• Is willing to take risks and challenge the status quo

It’s important to choose a companion behavior that like a good strength is important to the organization and makes you feel enthusiastic about tackling it. However, at this point, it’s constructive to consider your lower scores as well.

Step 4: Develop it in a Linear Way

I have identified direct ways to improve these skill sets. Here is an example of how I plan to improve my communication skills.

• Find ways inside and outside of work to improve communication skills (volunteer to make presentations to senior management, ask colleagues to critique e-mails, speech
• Practice talking about a random topic at mirror twice a week for 30 minutes. Record myself and correct errors
• Listen and observe great communicators and learn from their techniques.
Utilizing the four-step process will help you quantity and objectify your strengths. I found this discovery process extremely rewarding resulting in a greater confidence as a leader. This has enabled me to engage in deliberate practice of my strengths on a daily basis. I hope this will inspire you discover your strengths to be an exceptional leader.

Questions: What are your top five strengths?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Paul, I think my top five are 1. Developing others, 2, Champions Change, 3. Builds relationships, 4. Honesty and Commitment, and Innovates. I did the strengths finder 2.0 and it was really amazing to see that I was not too far off from my core strengths.

    • I definitely see your strengths displayed when you speak to me. Your questions and comments show that you are developing me. As an entrepreneur, you embrace change and adapt very easily. Your customized email you sent me when I first subscribed to your blog shows you want to build relationships. Your honesty is displayd through your authentic thoughts. Have you asked others and have you seen congruency?

  • Paul, what a great topic.I need to take time to really think about my strengths and how to maximize them.

    Dan, I am praying for you and your wife. God bless and protect you both.

    • Hi Melanie, a good book I’d recommend is Strengths Finder 2.0 by Tom Rath.

  • Great Post Paul. I’m doing leadership series for my blackberry subscribers and today the topic was “Focus on working on your strengths and avoid your weaknesses”. Well the bottom line of the message was, Focus on your strengths and Manage your weaknesses.

    Your post simply answered the follow up question of “what if our weakness is a fatal flaw to our strength”.

    I like the idea of finding the complimentary skills to your strength, and develop them too.

    Thanks.

    Praying for your family Dan, God’s healing for your wife, Strength and Grace.

    • Great Ibukun! What do you consider your key strengths brother?

  • This sounds like an interesting idea, Paul. Thanks for sharing! It looks like we share some similar strengths.

    Dan, I’m sorry to hear about your wife. Hope she is better soon! I’ll be praying for you guys.

    • Thank you Barb! Im always looking to connect with like-minded leaders! What strengths do you think best describe you?

      • I actually think I share all five of the ones you listed in your top passion list. I would also add one that is harder to describe – “bottom lineness” maybe. I’m good at figuring things out and finding the bottom line – kind of like your problem solving.

        • Hmm, that’s very interesting. Your thoughts around “bottom lineness” makes me feel you’re a result-oriented person who has the ability to deliver. That’s such an important trait for leaders. You walk the talk. Thanks for sharing Barb.

  • Sorry for the family emergency, Dan. Praying all is well.

    This is an in depth post- so much info to digest. It’s great that you have people you trust that can help you identify areas of strengths and ways of improving your leadership.

    I wish more leaders/bosses would do this. I’ve known bosses who allow the employees to do evaluations on them, but often the employees are too scared to be honest (unless they are mad and then the info is skewed as well).

    As for answering your question…I need more time to think.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

    • You’re spot on TC. This is a very detailed and in depth post that requires more than just reading. The key to discovering your strength I believe requires lots of investment of energy and time. So many leaders just blithely presume their strengths without putting much effort into this. These leaders who think that just checking off the box is sufficient is clearly missing out on a great opportunity to leverage their strengths unlocking their true potential.

  • Pray all is well with you and your family Dan.

    Great post Paul, very deep and insightful. you’ve said a couple of things that have stood out to me – finding and growing our complementary strength is a great one.
    Great thoughts to think on today. Thanks for sharing.

    • Yup Ngina, finding my complementary strengths also was a new and insightful exercise. I definitely see your key strengths from 9-12 on my strength list above. Have you taken other strength assessments to discover and cultivate your strengths?

  • First – Dan, thanks for sharing that you are dealing with something, appreciate the opportunity to pray for you. This is a very systematic way to truly leverage your strengths….I haven’t seen it presented this way before, in terms of finding other complementary strengths. Great stuff!

    • Thanks Tom! You got that right. Very systematic it is. What I love about this approach is the level of objectivity the feedback and results bring, enhancing self-awareness to my strengths. It gives you confidence and credibilty. The key is to find people in various domains of life (social, professional, spiritual) to provide constructive feedback.

  • Dan I hope your wife is okay and all ends well. Great you have some back up to let you take care of her.
    Paul this is a great post. I certainly did not think about what my strengths were when I started out in leaderships roles in my career. Now my top 5 are: listening, inspiring others, communication, honesty and integrity.

    Thanks for a good post.

    Sue

    • You have some amazing strengths there Sue. Listening I found is such an important strength to leverage that is often underminded by many leaders. The fact that as leaders we seek to grow self-aware of our strengths amd weaknesses through objective feedback makes us authentic leaders. Before I truly understood my strengths, I tried to be someone else. I was always comparing myself to others rather focusing on my God-given talents. As a result, I felt contrived and just inauthentic.

  • Dan, I’ll keep you and your family in my prayers.

    My strengths would be I’m flexible, good at reconciliation, service-oriented, adaptable and an instinctive communicator.

    • Thanks Sutton for joining the conversation and sharing your thoughts. I love how you described one of your strengths as instinctive communicator. This is an area I’d like to improve on. Do you have any tips?

      • Paul, I pulled out a personality test I took a couple years ago and that was one of the strengths it listed for me and I thought it sounded cool. haha, I’m not sure how to improve on it other than make a lot of mistakes and try not to repeat them. Maybe it’s listening to what the person is saying and trying to see what they’re feeling by watching their body language and tone of voice. I wish I had a better answer for you.

  • Dan, Sorry to hear about things with your family. Almost exactly a year ago, July 2012, I shut my blog down for a month go be with my dad in the hospital. I have an idea of how painful it can when your family isn’t healthy.

    Paul, after taking the strengths finder test and reading the material, I learned how being analytical can be used as a strength. Identifying our strengths is a great idea. As Marcus Buckingham said, working on your weaknesses is just damage control.

    • Thanks Ellory for sharing your thoughts on strengths finder. It’s am amzing tool isn’t it? Have you heard of Buckingham’s new book called StandOut? It’s similar to the strengths finder test but it focuses on your leadership strength and developing a leadership style that aligns with your strength instead of following a cookie cutter approach to leadership development. I found the report pretty accurate, thorough and very practical like the Strengths Finder assessment.

  • You and your wife have my prayers Dan!

  • Dan,

    Sorry to hear about your family. They are the most things in our lives. Hope all is well. Knowing what your strengths are will help you as a leader. In order to be a good leader, you need to listen, keep building relationships, be willing to change, be a role model to others, be committed and above all be honest.

    • Hi Arleen – I like your emphasis on honesty. So many times I’ve seen many leaders sort of deceive themselves into believing a strength this does not accurately portray the leader. It sometimes requires brutal honesty and courage to face the unvarnished truth. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Arleen.

  • Paul, I’ll have to get back to you with my top five but I wanted to say is this a phenomenal post, very well thought out. Working in strengths can open up so many doors and help you get so many more things accomplished.

  • Dan, prayers for your wife! Is there anything I can do to help?

    Great and thorough post Paul! My top strength is teacher. That’s why I’m seeking leaders out to learn from their expertise and sharing their wisdom with others

    • Awesome Alex! I consider teaching my secondary spiritual gift and strength as well. My primary spiritual gifts are around administration and leadership. I’m always looking into connecting with like-minded leaders! I’m trying to visit your website, but somehow I’m not able to get in. There’s an error page. Anyways, I look forward to getting to know you better.

      • I had the same trouble last night. I believe it’s fixed now!

        Yes I agree. Connecting with people who believe the same things has a way of propelling you forward

  • I hope all is okay, Dan. Thought and prayers with you.

    Paul: my top five strengths: creativity, writing, teaching, sharing, learning.

    • Thanks Dan. I can definitely see your strengths of teaching and writing play out on your blog! Keep up the good work.

  • Hi Dan,

    I just wanted to say I hope you and your wife are okay.

    Hi Paul,

    This was an excellent post. The greatest thing I’ve learnt from what you wrote is the importance of us as leaders to actively seek feedback from other people. So many people avoid doing this, out of fear of not hearing what they want. However, without such feedback we will never truly know our effectiveness as leaders.

    Thank you.

    • Thank you Hiten.

      Getting feedback from others is so important. I see feedback as a learning opportunity. Thank you for reading and sharing. Sorry this was a late reply.

  • Dan – thoughts and prayers with you at this time, rest easy and see you soon.
    Paul,
    Your post is rich with value – thank you for sharing – to reference StrengthsFinder 2.0, my Strengths are as follows:
    1. Communication
    2. Ideation
    3. Intellection
    4. Developer
    5. Harmony

    • Thank you Jon! Those are some great strengths!

    • Thanks Jon for sharing your top five strengths. You and I both have “Harmony” in common. I love your combination between the intellectual and people skills!

  • Sending you positive vibes your way Dan!

    Paul, pretty brave of you to proactively initiate a 360 review:) Always takes a lot of guts to ask for honest feedback. But the process you’ve developed here is a solid way to improve and become a stronger leader. And strengths – team-building, writing, advocacy, passion and determination. I bring all of this into my day job but there are probably a few other areas that I can improve upon. Thanks for post here, Pau, and the tips you’ve shared.

    • Thank you Vishnu,

      That’s great you can implement your strengths into your job. Glad you enjoyed Paul’s post. Thank you for sharing.

    • Thanks Vishnu for your thoughts here. Yes, it takes a bit of a courage to conduct a 360 review. The outcome however has been very helpful in my own development. The reality may be harsh yet it’s very rewarding. Thanks so much for reading.

  • Dan,
    Hope things get better with your family.

    Paul, wow – what a great post. I love how you’re so intentional about growing in particular behaviors by breaking them down into complementary skills – I love that.

    • Thanks Loren. Things are working out.

      Yes, Paul wrote such a good post. Glad you enjoyed it.

  • The details are well-explained and very concise.

    • Glad you enjoyed the post. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment.