What are management and leadership strengths and how to get them

One of the questions I am often asked in my work with leaders is ‘do I have the right strengths to be a leader?’.

So here’s the thing in a nutshell – our research with over 1,000 leaders has shown that to be effective, it matters far less which strengths you have, what matters more is how you use those strengths – at the right time, in the right place, with the right people and in the right ways.
So the having of a strength isn’t it – it’s being smart in using it well that really matters.

What are management and leadership strengths and how can you get them?

Back in the beginning (of management and leadership research and practice I mean, so around 1850), the dominant view was that great leaders had to possess certain qualities, traits, characteristics that separated them from mortal humans which somehow enabled them to transcend others and become outstanding leaders – essentially, you were born a leader or you weren’t, and there wasn’t much you could do about that.

This theory, to give a sense of how current and relevant it remains today, was called the Great Man theory, because as we know, all great leaders are men (face plant emoji). Over the next 100 years this view of leadership skills thankfully became less dominant and moved more into identifying particular personality characteristics that marked out effective leaders, followed by theories focusing on effective leadership behaviours, then on how leaders interacted with their followers, and then on how inspiring leaders actually inspired.

Nowadays we can see that bits of all of these views are seen to be relevant – they all have something in them (apart from Great Man theory perhaps) but some are more right than others.

I said that Great Man theory is thankfully dead and buried but I’m actually not sure it is at all. There’s still a view, certainly more prevalent in the last few years with the rise of certain male leaders on the world stage, that being a great leader is something that you’re born into, or that you have a particular personality type or set of qualities that separate you somehow. Which is probably why I’m still getting posed the question about having the right leadership and management strengths.

But our research, and the evidence-based views that I tend to agree with show that while effective leaders and managers might have slightly different strengths to those who are less effective, what is far more important in driving their effectiveness is knowing how to use those strengths in different contexts, and that comes down effective leaders being marked out by their situational agility, emotional intelligence, humility and commitment to self-improvement.

Quite frankly, that’s true of everyone – manager, leader or neither: when you know your strengths and you know how to use them well, you have the greatest chance of living your best work life, life life, and being really good at what you do.

So, whoever you are, whatever role you’re in, my tips are these:

1. Get to know you at your best

Find out what strengths you have, preferably using any reputable strengths profiling approach (*Strengthscope*) and identify what it is that makes YOU different from others in the way you see, think, feel and act in the world.

2. Get feedback

Learn from others whether they see these qualities and motivations in you too. If not, find out what you could do differently to make your strengths more visible. And, find out whether others are experiencing your strengths as you intend – if they sometimes are a little overwhelming to others, learn how to rein them in by using alternatives. Have a listen to my podcast at Season 5, episode 2 on taming the energy monster for more on that.

3. Give it a go

Make a plan as to how you’re going to use your strengths as a force for good in the world – good for you and good for those around you. Then go for it, own it, do it your way, be that different person but do it smart and by continuing to check the effects you’re having, gathering feedback all the time. And remember, we never arrive, we’re always in progress, developing and learning, so stay humble and watch yourself in particular in pressure situations, where your strongest strengths may become your greatest watchouts.

Those three strengths tips relate to anyone in any role, because they’re always relevant. It’s knowing what to do with your natural strengths that counts.
But what about behaviours?

Well thinking specifically about managers and leaders now, our research also showed that, as well as their smart use of strengths, out of our 1,000 leaders, those who demonstrated certain behaviours outperformed those who didn’t.

So what are those behaviours and how can you get good at them?

Our model of leadership (which is actually one of the focuses of our StrengthscopeLeader tool, see it here) covers four areas of leadership behaviour: Sharing vision, sparking engagement, skilfully executing and sustaining progress.

Here’s a little something on each of the four key leadership behaviours to try out:

1. Sharing vision

This is about understanding the context of your organisation or department or team – the aims, goals, priorities – and then coming up with a simple, real, honest way of describing what success could look like for you. Many managers struggle with the simple part, so the tip here is to make it real and meaningful. For example, at Strengthscope our mission is “to enable everyone to have honest, authentic conversations about who they REALLY are so that they can take ownership of their performance, growth and careers and bring their best, most HUMAN, self to work and life every day.” So that’s sharing vision.

2. Sparking engagement

This leadership skill relates to creating an open, honest climate where people can share views and ideas and where they are challenged to stretch themselves in line with their strengths and skills. Tip here: always listen, try not to be defensive as a manager, be appreciative and seek first to understand, then to be understood, as Steven Covey would have it (I was going to say the Great Man Steven Covey there but that’s not right given what I’ve just been saying about Great Man theory)

3. Skillful execution

This is about getting the job done by having good people processes and following them – clear objective-setting, giving people honest feedback, reporting results. What many leaders struggle with here (including me) is having the ‘tough’ conversation when someone’s performance isn’t right. Tip is to catch under-performance quickly, fairly, openly and to be clear with the person what needs to change and why. I’ve got a podcast on this by the way at season 1, episode 4: great feedback in 3 steps. Have a listen if you want to know more.

4. Sustaining progress

This final leadership behaviour is about encouraging people to innovate to get better and better and better. In other words, management-speak wise, continuous improvement and creating a learning culture. In practice, that means creating a work environment where people are encouraged to innovate and risk-take and where they can make mistakes and not be punished for it, always within reasonable boundaries of course.

So there you have it.

In summary, the right leadership and management strengths, in fact the right strengths for any role, are YOUR strengths, used well.
As a manager, combine your strengths with those 4 key leader behaviours we’ve covered and statistics show that you’re far more likely to be, and be seen to be, effective in your role. That’s it for this week, till next time, Kia Kaha – be strong.