Problem-solving is often described as one of the fundamental tasks of leadership. Great leaders are called to be great analysts and activists. Leaders get things done. But the truly great leaders apply those capacities to discover and engage people’s strengths rather than to identify and fix people’s weaknesses. That may seem counterintuitive, since it is often thought that weaknesses are the cause of our problems, but focusing on strengths is a well-researched and well-documented way to increase the chances of success. If that sounds attractive to you, then read on! This Provision makes the case and illustrates how great leaders get that done.
If you have had the chance to look at our book, Evocative Coaching, or if you have visited our website with the Center for School Transformation, then you know that we have developed a growth-oriented coaching model for leadership and professional development conversations. That model, portrayed on a M•bius strip to indicate its intriguing complexity and endless possibilities, works with two conversational loops that interplay in the service of continual learning and growth.
We call the first conversation the No-Fault Turn, because it is here that we reframe and gently set aside those fault-finding stories that so often fill our days. You know the stories I mean: stories of failure, frustration, and fear. Stories of guilt, shame, and blame. Stories of constriction, confusion, and consternation. Stories of persecutors, rescuers, and victims. Stories of weakness, short-comings, and incapacity. The list of life-depleting and life-alienating stories knows no bounds.
Although such stories are based upon real experiences, they are not the experiences themselves. The map is not the territory. The map is a representation of the territory and its accuracy depends upon the mapmaker as well as many other variables. Accuracy matters. Perhaps you read the news story recently about how a mistakenly drawn line on Google maps led to an invasion of Costa Rica by Nicaragua. That might never have happened if the Nicaraguan commander had been using Bing maps, since Microsoft had the border drawn right.
Stories, experiences, and storytellers work the same way as maps, territories, and mapmakers. The story is not the experience and its accuracy depends upon the storyteller as well as many other variables. Like maps, accuracy matters when it comes to stories. More conflicts have been started by stories than by maps, including stories about maps! (The commander who invaded Costa Rica told a reporter that it was not his fault, because the map made him do it.)
Recognizing the pliable nature of stories, which both reflect and create the realities of our lives, the evocative coaching process invites people to set aside critical evaluations in favor of honest observations. Instead of telling stories that evaluate who did what to whom, evocative coaching encourages people to talk about what could be captured on a video camera without trying to assign credit or blame, cause or effect. Once the facts are agreed upon, it becomes far easier to seek both insight and understanding as to the feelings, needs, and desires of everyone involved.
When people communicate and connect in this way, with honesty and empathy, the No-Fault Turn gives way naturally to the Strengths-Building Turn. Once people quench the fires of the blame game, they naturally start seeing fewer deficits, problems, and excuses. They become more willing and able to see assets, strengths, and opportunities. By focusing on such positive dynamics, people unleash new energy, awaken new aspirations, generate new possibilities, and take new actions.
Understanding the value of positive emotions, great leaders make sure to shine the spotlight of their attention and to guide the course of their conversations in that direction. The late Peter Drucker, one of the seminal thinkers and writers on management and leadership in the 20th century, put it this way all the way back in 1966: “Effective executives build on strengths • their own strengths, the strengths of their superiors, colleagues, and subordinates; and on the strengths in the situation.” They focus more on what they and their people can do than on what they can’t do.
Sounds good, right? But how often do we actually keep our attention and conversations oriented in the direction? When our son or daughter comes home with a report card including many “good” grades and one “bad” grade, where does our attention go? What do we end up talking about more? Most people focus more on how to correct the “bad” grade than on how to amplify the “good” grades. Most people end up in the Fault Zone, talking about what went wrong and how to recover. But the secret to success lies in our ability to build on strengths.
Strengths matter. They matter more than weaknesses if we want to be successful in life and work. Marcus Buckingham makes a convincing case for both the importance and engagement of strengths in his excellent book, Go Put Your Strengths To Work. I love this quote: “The radical idea at the core of the strengths movement is that excellence is not the opposite of failure, and that, as such, you will learn little about excellence from studying failure.”
Or, again: “What has become evident in virtually every field of human endeavor is that failure and success are not opposites, they are merely different, and so they must be studied separately.” “Study unproductive teams,” for example, “and you soon discover that the teammates argue a lot. Study successful teams, and you learn that they argue just as much. To find the secrets of a great team, you have to investigate the successful ones and figure out what is going on in the space between arguments.”
But it’s hard to do that when our feelings run strong and we are painfully caught up in the blame game. That’s why the No-Fault Turn is such an integral precondition for the Strengths-Building Turn. We first have to quiet those critical voices, both in our heads and coming out of our mouths, if we hope to turn our attention to strengths • the things we can celebrate, savor, and build on.
Empathy is one way to do that. It helps us to appreciate the value of the present moment, even when it is a difficult moment. Inquiry into strengths is another way to do that. We find we look for and we face the consequences in terms of our feelings and needs. If we go looking for problems then we will find problems and we will experience their downward tug. If we go looking for strengths then we will find strengths and we will experience the upward spiral of positive energy and emotions.
That’s why leaders cultivate habits of mind and conversation that turn the spotlight of attention onto strengths: doing so not only makes people feel good it also unleashes creativity, engagement, confidence, resilience, initiative, innovation, and self-efficacy. In other words, focusing our attention and conversation on strengths generates the very dynamics that people and organizations require if we hope to outgrow our problems.
Yet that is not how we usually approach our problems. Like the “bad” grade on the report card, problems have a way of grabbing our attention. Like the physical pain we experience from an injury, problems cause emotional pain that begs for relief. It’s tempting, then, to bear down and analyze the cause of the problem in hopes of rectifying it.
For anything other than the most technical of problems, however, (lawnmower won’t start, replace the sparkplug) this approach to problem solving is often not very effective. Most problems are more easily outgrown than solved. When I had my wisdom teeth removed as a teenager, the more I focused on the pain the worse the pain got. When I distracted myself with a bike ride • one of my strengths and something I could do, the pain faded away.
That’s what happens when we focus on strengths. Strengths unleash our energy, point us in new directions, quicken our hope, and enable us to be successful. To again quote Peter Drucker, “The task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths so that weaknesses become irrelevant.” No one, including our sons and daughters, can be absolutely excellent at everything. Becoming absolutely excellent at one thing, however, makes all the difference in the world.
I invite you to discover and align your strengths, and the strengths of the people you live with and work with, in such a way as to make your weaknesses irrelevant. Strengths matter. The more we know about them, the more we can play to them and use them. Two online tools for discovering our strengths are the Values in Action Signature Strengths Questionnaire (requires free registration) and the Clifton Strengths Finder (included with the purchase of a book or available separately). When strengths become our focus in leadership and life, there’s no end to what good things may come our way.
Coaching Inquiries: What’s your tendency when you experience a problem? Do you tend to analyze causes and solutions? Or are you more inclined to identify strengths and possibilities? How could you cultivate more of a positive approach to change? How could you cook up more positive energy and emotion both in yourself and in others? Who could help you to make it so?
To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form to arrange a complimentary conversation.
Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.
I appreciated your short, mid-week Provision, Gratitude Matters. It was a helpful reminder to remain positive even as my Parkinson’s disease takes its toll. Thanks.
We are grateful to you for sharing your gifts so freely through Provisions. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family.
I am so thankful for these weekly Provisions! They are nourishing, and I appreciate the time, effort, energy and love that goes into each one. My life is better for them. Thank you. 🙂
I truly appreciate your inspirational Provisions that pop up in my mailbox on a regular basis. I am amazed that it is a free service and for that and the content of your emails, I thank you.
I work as a volunteer on a Suicide Prevention Hotline and for 4• years was the Director. It was then that I realised how important it is to communicate your gratitude to the volunteers who operate the hotline out of the goodness of their hearts. Mostly they have full time jobs, families and other commitments and it never fails to amaze me how big their hearts are, and how big their listening ears are. I made a promise to myself that I would acknowledge and appreciate all that they do for our charity and again I was heartened at what a difference it made to them and to me!
In our line of work we get very little positive reinforcement for a job well done. It’s not often that a caller calls back to say they feel better or that we made a difference. So it is up to us as individuals to let the people who take the time and trouble to spend part of their week listening to people they don’t know that what they do is important. So thank you from the bottom of my heart for your goodness and commitment to remind us all from time to time of the important things in life that matter.
I would like to take a moment to thank you for all that you do. I have been reading (and using!) your Provisions for several years now. I share them with my leadership team as sometimes you seem to hit on exactly the thing we are struggling with at the time. Have a wonderful holiday.
I’m an avid reader of Provisions here in India and quite a few have been saved by me. You may not realize how well you are serving the society, but we do. We owe you a •VERY BIG THANK YOU•! Keep enriching our lives by adding value. Have a rewarding Day. Thanks once again and with warmest regards.
Love the reminder that Serenity Matters, recounting the Sabbath in contemporary language. Hope all is well, that you experience serenity this Thanksgiving, and God’s peace will be shared with you and by you.
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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Skype: LifeTrek • Twitter: @LifeTrekBob
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