What exactly does strengths-based MEAN?

Reflecting on a Guts of Leadership programme we have just completed, I have been going through a range of thoughts and feelings.  Immediately after was a sense of a job well done and satisfaction derived from participants’ comments that they had made some really significant shifts in themselves.  It is always good to know that I have been of service to others and that they have found value in what I do.

Next came the more in-depth analysis.  It is sometimes hard to accurately describe what goes on in the Guts of Leadership because we are working developmentally.  That is, there is a structure within which people have opportunities to develop the ‘next thing’ in their leadership journey, however this structure does not entail a bunch of powerpoints or lectures or pre-programmed talks about ‘stuff’; we work with what arises in the course of conversations that emerge within the group.  We warm people up to the point where they begin to tell their OWN stories of what THEY find challenging or where THEY get stuck or when THEY felt less than adequate.  By the time we get to this stage, there is sufficient trust in the group to be able to tell these stories without feeling that they will be deconstructed and left in a dribbling heap on the floor, however, there is something to be said for having a good hard look in the mirror to find the things that are less than adequate.

I reckon people can do this when the approach used is strengths-based.  Inherent in the methods we use at Quantum Shift is this strengths focus.  I know this is an expression that is not uncommon, but I think that sometimes there is a misconception as to what it actually means.  What a strengths-based approach is NOT is one where people are just put on pedestals and told how great they are.  It is NOT one where people ignore dysfunction.  It is NOT one where honest feedback is shied away from.  It is certainly not lovely and warmly fuzzy.  If people are there to learn, they want something to change, and effecting change in ourselves inevitably involves some discomfort.  I still, however, after all these years of applying the methods I use, get little twinges when people say that they have found the process easy.  I wonder if I should be more chastising and harsh.  Will these people be disappointed if they haven’t had a good ole’ whippin’?  Should we set up self-flagellation exercises?

Comments from one recent participant sum it up for me.  “It was challenging without feeling challenging.”  This gives some idea of what goes on when a strengths-based approach is applied.

If people are to change, it must be an act of their own will and this occurs when they become aware of themselves and what could be better.  After all, dissatisfaction could be said to be one of the most productive human emotions because it is the one that gets us off our behinds and actually doing something about it.  To start with the dysfunction, though, can be counter-productive.  How motivated will we be if the first thing we look at is ‘what I’m not doing so well’?  What happens to our self-esteem?  What happens to our drive?

It is always best to focus initially on what is good.  When people become aware of what they do well, their self image is enhanced and other problematic areas of their lives feel easier for them to manage.  They approach their less well-developed aspects with greater verve.  What this participant was saying was that he was able to face up to a number of things that he needed to grow in order to really take steps toward being the leader he wants to be, and that this was facilitated by being immersed in a process that, first and foremost, underlined the things he was already doing well.  After all, there is not much that we have learnt in life that wasn’t built on something else we already knew.

While I’m 100% sure that leader development only occurs when people have got a really good picture of what they need to change in THEMSELVES (and therein lies one of the biggest challenges), I’m just as sure that this is best facilitated when people are built up, and not slapped around by harsh criticism.


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