7 ideas to cultivate your strengths (not your weaknesses)

Peter Drucker

Drucker wrote that most people think they know their own strengths, but that they are almost invariably wrong. Drucker’s question is of critical importance because you cannot build great performance on weakness or even through seeking to avoid any weakness. This is because there will always be faults in any individual, even the most effective and successful. If you focus only on avoiding faults to the extent that you ignore your strengths and their development, you will be making a major mistake.

History is replete with individuals who made major contributions at critical times because of their strengths, yet had weaknesses which we might have wished they did not have. Churchill was a great wartime leader who saved England, and maybe the world when England fought alone against the Nazis, yet he was known to drink to excess. President Kennedy was able to avoid a nuclear conflagration and war with the Soviet Union. But as is known today, he was a womanizer. General George Patton was a great field general who won more battles with fewer casualties than any other American general during World War II, but he could have a terrible temper in dealing with subordinates and he once slapped a psychologically-wounded soldier and called him a coward, which led to Patton’s being relieved of command. Another highly successful general, Douglas MacArthur has been called swaggering, egotistical, and insubordinate. However, when he was military governor of Japan after World War II he instituted democracy and won great respect for the United States in a country that was steeped in centuries of authoritarian rule. After President Truman fired MacArthur for insubordination, Japanese Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida declared that his accomplishments for Japan were unparalleled and that all Japanese looked upon MacArthur with the greatest veneration and affection.

While we can work on building our strengths, all of us are limited to twenty-four hours a day in which to do this, although the span of productive years filled with twenty-four hour days may vary individually. So focusing on the development of a minor strength and missing a major one can cause us – in the common vernacular – "to miss our calling."

Whistler’s Other (Ambition, that is)

James Whistler, the American artist, who painted the famous portrait entitled "Whistler’s Mother" once wanted to be a soldier. The young Whistler applied and managed to make it to West Point where he struggled for three years before he finally abandoned his limited talents for what was required at that institution and began to focus on developing the considerable artistic strengths he possessed. However despite reaching the pinnacle of the artistic world, he never completely forgave himself for his failure in chemistry and his error in defining a particular solid material as gaseous, and until his death sometimes was heard to lament, "Had silicon been a gas, I would have been a major general."

Whistler was fortunate. While serving as a major general is an important and honorable calling, there is only one Whistler, and very few of his artistic talent. Even if he became a major general he would have been one of many major generals during the Civil War. Moreover, though Whistler made it sound pretty easy and seemed pretty confident about the certainty of his achieving this high rank, the percentages who survived battle and competition with others to become a major general from his West Point class was less than 5%.

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The one way to identify your strengths

Drucker said there was only one way to identify your strengths. He called it feedback analysis. He said that in a short time you’d identify your strengths and promised that you’d be surprised. I was. A short time for me meant maybe two or three days. Drucker wrote that it would take a short time and that it would "only" take two or three years!

The methodology Drucker developed is simple. Every time you must take an important action or decision, write down your expected results. Then some months later, when the results are in, compare actual results with those you expected. If expected and actual are close, you are competent in this area. If not, you are less so. Continue to do this, and after awhile a clear picture of your strengths (and weaknesses) will emerge. Now you can also do this with others, and the importance of this will become apparent shortly.

What should you do next?

Drucker suggested that several "action conclusions" should follow. In other words, it’s not enough to come to conclusions about your strengths and weaknesses – you’ve actually got to do something about them!

Drucker identified seven such action conclusions:

#1: Concentrate on your strengths and make them stronger

Drucker found strengths of far more importance than weaknesses. Position yourself so you can use your strengths to produce your very best performance and get optimal results.

I recently read that famed ‘30s and ‘40s actress Hedy Lamarr, born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna, the only child of assimilated Jewish parents. She had a strange background indeed. She made lots of films, but most famous for an early one made in Czechslovakia in 1933 called "Ectsasy." Need I say more?

In an age when to appear in a bikini would have been a cause for arrest, she appeared in a film which included frontal nudity and a simulated organism which included a remarkable face close up which achieved its realism by the director jabbing Ms. Lamarr in the buttocks with a safety pin. However, Lamarr was also a math prodigy and was co-inventor of the wireless technology you are using in your Bluetooth or cell phone today. She made 32 films. None spectacular. The technology she invented was. Only she would be answer the question of whether she chose wisely or not.

#2: Work on improving your strengths

Steve Jobs didn’t invent an industry by turning his computer skills into party games. He kept improving them almost until the end and introduced the iPad less than two years before his death. That comes close to the Von Schlieffen's strategic plan for Germany’s winning World War One in a two front war. It is said that Von Schlieffen's final words were, "Keep the right wing strong." And then he died. His successors failed to follow these final instructions, and Germany lost the war.

#3: Identify where intellectual arrogance causes disabling ignorance

Now what is Drucker talking about? He says that this action conclusion is of particular importance. He’s talking about a situation where you have overwhelming knowledge in one area causes you to neglect knowledge in other areas to the extent of almost complete ignorance. A friend of mine who dealt with a number of highly educated people who were contemptuous of other less formally educated people used to call the former "educated idiots."

Drucker would have agreed. He said such people frequently demonstrated poor performance due to knowledge in too narrow a field.

#4: Remedy your shortcomings or bad habits

If you have a problem, fix it. Don’t ignore it using the excuse that you’re developing your strengths.

#5: Demonstrate good manners

How many bright, knowledgable people fail because they lack the social graces? Drucker called manners the "lubricating oil" of an organization.

#6: Don’t take on assignments in which you are incompetent

Don’t agree to be a Chinese interpreter unless you speak and understand Chinese. Pretty funny, huh? Yet how many times have you seen a volunteer cut the Thanksgiving Turkey when they haven’t a clue and leave a butchered mess.

#7: Finally, don’t waste a lot of time raising your performance in weak areas

Your time should be spent on raising high skill and compentence levels to even higher degrees.

Are There More Important Qualities than Strengths?

Building on Drucker’s concept of staffing for strength, I think that there are other qualities that must be considered or that you must consider for others if you are doing the staffing and placing round pegs in round holes. For yourself, these include what you like to so, what you think you should do, and what you want to do; or conversely for others, what you would like someone to do, what you think they should do, and what you want them to do.

For example, you may have two Russian interpreters of equal ability but only one position available. Or there may some personality clash that would require one individual to be placed in a certain job and not in another. So, to blindly staff without considering all aspects of the individuals and the environment would be foolish. However Drucker emphasized to staff for strength, not to avoid weakness.