Make Strength Productive — And Weaknesses Irrelevant

Do fish have to climb trees? Of course not! So why are employees regularly asked to work on their weaknesses? It would make more sense for everyone to accept weaknesses, make them irrelevant through appropriate organization and thus deliberately make strengths productive.

Every­one is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its abil­i­ty to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believ­ing that it is stu­pid. That’s a pop­u­lar say­ing that is often attrib­uted to Albert Ein­stein. Although there is no evi­dence for this, it fits very well with Einstein’s biog­ra­phy: He only began to speak at the age of three and although he was not bad at school, he was no child prodi­gy. His strengths remained undis­cov­ered for a long time, or at least were not used suf­fi­cient­ly. At the time of his ground­break­ing first pub­li­ca­tions in his annus mirabilis 1905, he was a 3rd class tech­ni­cal expert at the Swiss Patent Office. And that was actu­al­ly already a step up, because he pre­vi­ous­ly had to work as a pri­vate tutor after his appli­ca­tions for assis­tant posi­tions at the Swiss Poly­tech­nic and oth­er uni­ver­si­ties were rejected.

In his book “The Effec­tive Exec­u­tive” (Ama­zon Affil­i­ate Link), which is very worth read­ing again and again, Peter F. Druck­er ded­i­cates a whole chap­ter to the ques­tion of how to employ your­self and your employ­ees in the best pos­si­ble way. His basic assump­tion is that every­one has some indi­vid­ual strengths — and quite a num­ber of weak­ness­es. This is prob­a­bly in line with the expe­ri­ence we make every day as human beings, boss­es, employ­ees or parents. 

The idea that there are “well-round­ed” peo­ple, peo­ple who have only strengths and no weak­ness­es (…) is a pre­scrip­tion for medi­oc­rity if not for incom­pe­tence. Strong peo­ple always have strong weak­ness­es too.

Peter F. Druck­er, 1967. The Effec­tive Executive

But since our school days we have been focused on the deficits. In job inter­views we are then asked about our great­est weak­ness and in each annu­al appraisal inter­view we are asked where we still need to improve. All with the aim of mak­ing us as well-round­ed as pos­si­ble. How­ev­er, this almost inevitably caus­es strengths to with­er away, while weak­ness­es are devel­oped to an accept­able medi­oc­rity. This is nei­ther good for the peo­ple and their moti­va­tion, which is essen­tial­ly based on their self-real­iza­tion, nor is it good for the per­for­mance of the organization.

To make strength pro­duc­tive is the unique pur­pose of orga­ni­za­tion. It can­not, of course, over­come the weak­ness­es with which each of us is abun­dant­ly endowed. But it can make them irrelevant.

Peter F. Druck­er, 1967. The Effec­tive Executive

Lead­er­ship means to mak­ing strengths pro­duc­tive and weak­ness­es irrel­e­vant. And lead­er­ship always begins with self-lead­er­ship and thus with know­ing and accept­ing one­self in one’s unique nature, with the respec­tive strengths and weak­ness­es. It is about remain­ing true to one­self with­out con­stant­ly imi­tat­ing oth­er peo­ple or pur­su­ing an abstract and entire­ly per­fect ide­al image.

We are all born orig­i­nals – why is it so many of us die copies?

Edward Young

The recog­ni­tion of one’s own strengths is not some­thing that is laid in one’s cra­dle or falls into one’s lap, but is the result of sys­tem­at­ic reflec­tion. Effec­tive man­agers set them­selves goals and reg­u­lar­ly review their per­for­mance. Peter F. Druck­er rec­om­mends the so-called Feed­back Analy­sis: For every impor­tant deci­sion, expec­ta­tions and fears are writ­ten down and com­pared with the actu­al results after 9 to 12 months (see Peter F. Druck­er, Man­ag­ing One­self. Ama­zon Affil­i­ate Link). A sim­ple but effec­tive method to sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly iden­ti­fy your own strengths.

Most peo­ple think they know what they’re good at. They are usu­al­ly wrong. More often, peo­ple know what they’re not good at — and even then more peo­ple are wrong than right.

Peter F. Drucker

A good way to explore one’s own strengths can be per­son­al­i­ty tests (despite all jus­ti­fied crit­i­cism) like this very nice one from 16Personalities. I at least rec­og­nized myself well in my result Logi­cian / INTP‑T (even apart from the Bar­num effect). I have under­stood that I am always attract­ed by the new. At least until I have basi­cal­ly under­stood it and tried it out to some degree. After­wards, when it comes to imple­ment­ing, rolling out and indus­tri­al­iz­ing it, my moti­va­tion decreas­es noticeably.

That’s why I’ve been writ­ing short blog arti­cles for almost 10 years and hard­ly any books and if books like the Man­i­festo for Human(e) Lead­er­ship, then books that con­sist of blog arti­cles. That’s why my jour­ney through life is not a straight­for­ward career path. And that is why I find the con­cept of Wu Wei much more appeal­ing than the exer­cise of set­ting life goals by writ­ing my own eulo­gy and work­ing towards them.

The difference between pioneers, settlers and town planners according to Simon Wardley
The dif­fer­ence between pio­neers, set­tlers and town plan­ners accord­ing to Simon Ward­ley.

In the ter­mi­nol­o­gy of Simon Ward­ley, I’m prob­a­bly more of a pio­neer than a set­tler or town plan­ner. And that’s a good thing. At least as long as you are able to use these strengths and there are oth­ers that make up for my weak­ness­es as a set­tler or town plan­ner. But that’s exact­ly what orga­ni­za­tions (or net­works) exist for. And some­times you are lucky and get a true leader as boss, who wants to make strengths pro­duc­tive and unleash the human poten­tial.

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