Growing Great Leaders - A Strengths Based Approach

Abigail Clayton

Great leaders are important to the success of any organisation – you just need to look at the links that have been identified between leadership and engagement, profits, turnover, customer satisfaction and the commitment of employees – and ultimately the bottom line to see the impact great leaders can have. But how do you get to greatness?

If you picture a great leader, what do you see? Whether they are a leaders of countries, organisations, communities or movements one thing will be clear, they all excel in something. In browsing Fortunes list of the world’s 50 greatest leaders – the diversity of strengths within the group is clear. The Dalai Lama has a very different set of skills and strengths from that of Angela Merkel yet both individuals have an awareness of their strengths and use them wisely.


Here at Getfeedback we strongly believe that there is no one size fits all model for a perfect leader. Successful leaders differ greatly in the skills, personalities and behaviours which have set them apart and helped them to excel in their fields. What great leaders do have in common is self-awareness. They understand where they can best use their strengths to drive an organisation forward and how to get the best out the people around them and understand the needs of their followers – they truly know their strengths – and can call on the right strength at the right time.

“I’ve never met an effective leader who wasn’t aware of his talents and working to sharpen them” Wesley Clark – former NATO Supreme Allied Commander

Focus on Strengths

At the core of the strengths-based leadership is the underlying belief that people have several times more potential for growth building on their strengths, rather than focusing on the areas where they may not be so competent. It is the focus on individual strengths that has been the subject of many recent papers and research into great leadership and the focus of many of Getfeedback’s recent leadership development programmes. It is this focus on individual and team strengths that Roarty and Toogood (2014) highlight in their book The Strengths Focused Guide to Leadership:

“A strengths focused leader is one who seeks greater results by ensuring that they and the people they lead are able to play to their strengths”

They define a strength to be:

  • Something that you are good at
  • Something that energises and motivates you
  • Something that gives you good results

Playing to strengths builds on awareness of what individuals love doing and what motivates them. Strengths based leadership draws on the findings of the “positive psychology” approach propose that utilising your personal strengths will result in more positivity, personal engagement, higher levels of motivation, and overall success. Indeed in a workplace when an organisation fails to focus on individual strengths the odds of an employee being engaged have been shown to be as low as 9%, but that when leaders focus on and invest in their employees strengths this figure increases substantially to 78% - Rath and Conchie (2009).

Rath and Conchie (2009) draw on decades of Gallup research in their bestselling book Strengths Based Leadership and establish that that individuals should be aware of personal strengths and how to use them instead of trying to adopt the habits and styles of other successful leaders. They argue that utilising strengths keeps individuals confident and they draw on research that establishes that self-confidence influences long-term career success. Roarty and Toogood (2014) also take this view:

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid”

Don’t aim for average

Zenge and Folkman (2009) in their book The Extraordinary Leader draw on data from more than 200,000 individuals and 25,000 leaders to show how leaders can go from being good to great and average to extraordinary. They found that the worst leaders are average at everything, and that if individuals focused on developing their strengths – working within the areas they excel - then when combined with the right personal characteristics they could become truly great leaders. As long as fatal flaws can be remedied then the excelling in just a small number of areas will have a disproportionate return on the perception of an individual’s leadership skills.

Zenger & Folkman highlight that greatness is not caused by the absence of weakness:

“The absence of weaknesses combined with the absence of any pronounced strengths commits you to being no better than average”

They also highlight that those with average well rounded profiles also are prone to have over inflated self-evaluation of their own leadership skills.

Rath and Conchie (2009) agree:

“If you spend your life trying to be good at everything, you will never be great at anything. While our society encourages us to be well-rounded, this approach inadvertently breeds mediocrity. Perhaps the greatest misconception of all is that of the well-rounded leader.”

So if self-awareness is key, then so is the focus on elements of strength rather than creating a well-rounded leader.

The importance of teams and followers

Rath and Conchie (2009) draw on decades of Gallup research and identify three key elements to being an effective leader:

  • Knowing your strengths and Investing in others strengths
  • Getting the people with the right strengths on your team
  • Understanding and meeting the 4 basic needs of those who look to you for leadership

Knowledge of and investment in strengths is an important element of being an effective leader but this is just one of the 3 areas identified. Rath and Conchie (2009) also focus on the importance of having the right team strengths and meeting the needs of followers.

Whereas great leaders are seldom well rounded Rath and Conchie (2009)’s research suggests that the best teams are. Effective leaders surround themselves with the right people and build on each individuals strengths.

They also highlight the importance of followers – “You are only a leader if others follow”. Rath and Conchie (2009) review the reasons why individuals follow and their basic needs.

Even lessons in leadership from the crazy dancing guy highlight the importance of followers:


Awareness of, and a focus on, individual and team strengths and needs are at the very heart of a leaders and ultimately an organisations success.

Understanding individuals and organisational needs are the core of what Getfeedback do. Only by creating an awareness of individual’s personal strengths and the strengths of the team will they then be in a position to build on these and become a truly great leader within a truly great organisation. Getfeedback measurably improves the performance of organisations through their people.

We have successfully been working with a number of organisations to support the development and growth of their leaders and leadership teams. Interventions have ranged from bespoke 360 questionnaires to individual assessment, feedback and coaching to larger scale longer term individual and organisational development support. A one-size-fits-all broad brush approach to leadership development is not what we do. We have firmly established and seen real return from a focus on strengths and individual differences and seen clear and measureable results in the leaders we work with. If you would be interested in discussing a bespoke approach to your leadership and organisational challenges please get in touch.


The Extraordinary Leader: Turning Good Managers into Great Leaders (2009) by John H. Zenge, Joseph Folkman

The Strengths-Focused Guide to Leadership (2014) by Mike Roarty, Kathy Toogood

Strengths-based Leadership: A Landmark Study of Great Leaders, Teams, and the Reasons Why We Follow (2009) by Tom Rath, Barry Conchie