Executive Exchange Insights: Leveraging Individual Strengths for Leadership Development

When working with young professionals I am often asked: what are the leadership qualities that will get me promoted? My response to the young professional is: what strengths do you bring to the table? Or what value do you add to your organization? I am surprised at how challenging this question is to answer.

Oftentimes leaders are looking for a checklist of skills they can strive to develop.

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy; it truly depends on the individual.

Yes, we can point to academic research and quantitative survey results that suggest skills that are more relevant to leadership success. However, it is not likely that one person can embody all the competencies on the checklist. And when we attempt to employ an unnatural competency we can be perceived as insincere. This can cause others to feel uncomfortable or question a leader’s authenticity and credibility.

Authentic leadership requires one to use her strengths when leading. It’s about being real and genuine with individual talents and acknowledging and managing weaknesses. Authentic leadership requires a high level of emotional intelligence: the ability to understand the self, be familiar with other behavioral styles and manage interactions for a successful relationship. This takes much effort and practice. To be truly successful, this personal leadership recipe must be adapted to the unique team, organizational culture and specific situation.

So, where to start?

The easiest place to start is with the self. Self-awareness requires a level of humility to explore individual competencies via assessment tools, performance appraisals, coaching and mentoring sessions and direct interpersonal discussions with people who have worked intimately with the individual.

Executive ExchangeSelf-awareness is a key component of an emotionally intelligent leader. Self-awareness includes reflection on what I do well, what I don’t do well, what value I bring to the table and what potential characteristics may derail my career.

The most eye-opening experience I have had facilitating this coaching discussion is how aware people are of their weaknesses and how unaware they are of their strengths. Too often we receive negative feedback or are provided training opportunities to “improve upon our weaknesses.”

Marcus Buckingham, author of Now, Discover Your Strengths, would argue that a focus on improving weaknesses might not be an efficient use of time and energy; we can only get marginally better at a weakness because it is not natural. However, development opportunities focused on our strengths can provide exponential opportunity for growth.

Identifying personal strengths can help create that magical recipe for an authentic leadership style. A career aligned with strengths is a career that provides fulfillment and allows extraordinary opportunity for growth and success.

Through my training and coaching efforts, I have created a tool to collect this personal information: a personal balance sheet. If we consider the financial balance sheet equation: assets – liabilities = owner’s equity, we can understand the value of a company. If we create a personal balance sheet we can “calculate” personal equity: personal assets (i.e. strengths) – personal liabilities (i.e. weaknesses) = personal equity (or the value we bring to the company). It is then easy to create a personal development plan and career map for leadership success.

Leadership is an evolution and individuals must take personal accountability for this process. By definition, evolution is gradual (a.k.a. not fast!). Patience and openness are required throughout this process. If we consider ourselves a work in progress throughout our career we can determine the education, training, experiences and relationships that will help us evolve into an accomplished leader with many opportunities for promotion.


Jessica J. Schimert
Organizational Development Consultant
Performance Management Partners