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Being well-rounded is the antithesis of great leadership: Tom Rath

Interview with, Author & senior scientist, Gallup

Devina Joshi  |  New Delhi 

Tom Rath
Tom Rath

Leaders need to be aware of their weaknesses or blind spots. They should surround themselves with people better in the areas where they do not have natural talent, Tom Rath tells Devina Joshi

What is more important: getting the most out of people or getting the best out of people and why?

Getting the best out of people is far more important than effort alone. I could work for many hours on a task and be nowhere near as effective as someone with more natural talent in that area would be in 15 minutes on the same task. One of the most disturbing things I see in the workplace today is when leaders confuse effort with actual results. Consider what occurs when you go out to eat at a nice restaurant. If you truly enjoyed your meal, that is the outcome and the goal. The last thing you care about is how long it took the chef to create the recipe or prepare the meal.

One of the things that separate a leader from others is cognizance of his or her own strengths. These are people who know what they are best at, focus on becoming great at a few things and avoid the jack-of-all-trades way of functioning. But isn't being well-rounded an essential quality of leadership?
I have found the opposite to be true. Being well-rounded is the antithesis of great leadership. Without exception, every great leader I have studied or met has very unique strengths, weaknesses and capabilities. Anyone who spends most of their time trying to be competent at everything misses out on the opportunity to be great at what they do best.

One of the leaders we studied for the book Strength Based Leadership was Mervyn Davies, former head of Standard Chartered. He was one of the best relationship builders I have ever interviewed. Instead of trying to be the world's best operations guy, for example, he doubled on his strengths by building stronger relationships. Of course, he also had great operational, sales, and finance teams, which allowed him to spend more time investing in his connections with employees, customers, and especially with the communities served by the bank.

It is often said that great leaders lead by example, which could imply people ought to follow in their footsteps. But not everyone has the same skill sets, talent or knowledge. Should employees emulate their leaders at all?
Employees need to chart their own course instead of trying to be like the boss. When I see a team that consists of many people trying to act 'just like the boss', it is a great way to predict failure and dysfunction. Trying to emulate your boss is also a quick way to be universally disliked by most of your colleagues. When an employee tries too hard simply to please the leaders without ever challenging them, it is not good for the business or even relationships in the office. Even the best leaders need someone to challenge their thinking on a regular basis.

In your book StrengthsFinder 2.0, you have mentioned that instead of wasting time improving an employee's weak areas, an organisation should focus on her strengths and develop them for greater productivity. But what if leaders take that to the other extreme - what if they ignore an employee's weakness that could hamper her work, in a bid to be more 'strength' focused?
This is one piece of strengths-based focus that has been widely mischaracterised in some circles. By no means do any of the research pieces I have studied suggest that it is okay to 'ignore' weaknesses. Denial is no way to deal with serious shortcomings.

Ignoring weaknesses can get you in just as much trouble as when you ignore your strengths. Leaders need to be very aware of their weaknesses and blind spots, if for no other reason than to ensure they surround themselves with people who are much better in the areas where they do not have natural talent. Take, for example, a leader who has a talent for strategic thinking and mapping out a big vision but falters when it comes to executing these ideas and making things happen. While you may be able to get away with this in an academic setting, it does not work in the business world. Ideas have little value alone until they serve a specific purpose and most importantly a customer. So leaders who do not have natural talent for managing projects through to completion absolutely need someone by their side who can fill in these gaps.

The reality is that we need a healthy balance of focusing on both strengths and weaknesses. Traditionally, I have observed that roughly 75 per cent of developmental conversations focus on weaknesses and about 25 per cent of the time is spent discussing an employee's strengths. My recommendation would be to turn this around and dedicate 75 per cent of the time to strengths and the remaining 25 per cent to figure out how you can deal with, partner and manage weaknesses.

How do leaders tread the thin line between constructive criticism and demoralising an employee?
The harmful part is when it gets personal and the criticism is directed at the individual instead of being focused on specific areas where someone is lacking performance-wise. There is certainly a place for constructive criticism and good leaders usually relish this opportunity. What matters is that leaders remain as objective as possible. If things get too heated and personal, the exercise will inevitably turn out poorly for the employee, the leader and the company.

'You can be anything you want to be, if you just try hard enough.' You have declared this to be a misguided maxim in the work environment. But if this is a myth, employees might as well give up on their ambition/competitive spirit and settle in the sidelines?
People who double down on investment and their strengths are usually the highest achieving and most ambitious people in a given workplace. In contrast, waking up every day and trying to fix an area where you don't have much natural talent or aptitude can be quite demoralising over a period of time. In my own experience, there is infinite opportunity when you continue to invest in your strengths. When you will help another person to uncover what they naturally do well, you will see a visible increase in energy, productivity, ambition and an employee's overall well-being.

Strength-based leadership
  • Rath, who has authored five books for research firm Gallup, has expertise in the role of human behaviour in health, business and economics. He writes and speaks on a range of topics from wellbeing to organisational leadership
  • Some of the strengths noted in his book StrengthFinder 2.0 include achiever, arranger, competition, harmony and includer
  • Rath, a product of the University of Michigan and University of Pennsylvania where he is now a guest lecturer, earlier served as vice-chairman of the VHL Cancer Research Organisation

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First Published: Mon, August 26 2013. 00:18 IST