What is Strengths-based Leadership?

... And Why Should I Care?

What Do We Mean By Strengths?

Gallup defines strength as the unique combination of talents, knowledge, and skills that every person possesses. People use these innate traits and abilities in their daily lives to complete their work and relate to others.

Consulting firm Talent Plus, a world leader in the strength-based approach, defines talent and strength as a person’s capacity for near perfect performance through the use of natural abilities not acquired through effort, education, or experience.

The Positive Psychology Institute states that strength is a natural capacity for behaving, thinking, or feeling in a way that allows optimal functioning and performance in the pursuit of valued outcomes.

See the commonalities in these definitions? Strengths are:

  • ​Innate. They are part of our internal makeup.

  • Consistent. We can depend on these attributes in virtually any situation.

  • Multipliers of performance. We achieve a level of excellence by using our strengths effectively.

So What is Strength-based Leadership?

Strength-based leadership is an approach to leading and motivating others by focusing on the natural abilities that each person brings to the team. This approach developed from the field of positive psychology popularized by Martin Seligman in the late 1990’s and built upon the foundational research of such renowned psychologists as Abraham Maslow (hierarchy of needs) and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (flow state, which is a predecessor to the study of strengths). Strength-based leadership advocates for spending the majority of one’s time utilizing their strengths effectively, rather than focusing on fixing or developing their weaknesses.

Traditional leadership approaches place an emphasis on discovering deficits – what a person does wrong or is lacking – and then prescribing solutions to fix those issues. Similarly, most performance management systems are designed with the premise that to increase employee performance, individuals must be measured against key competencies and goals, areas, where they fall short, must be identified, and then plans must be developed for them in order to score higher next period.

The problem with this approach is that when we focus on deficits, we limit ourselves to looking only for problems. Thus, the procedure to resolve those problems would look like this:

  1. Identify what is wrong

  2. Analyze the cause(s)

  3. Determine goals to fix these causes

  4. Define steps to achieve goals

  5. Implement the plan

  6. Evaluate whether or not the problem was fixed

While this process has some benefits to resolving product or service defects, it is not a worthwhile endeavor for developing people. As a long-time mentor of mine was fond of saying, “if fixing our weaknesses actually worked, we’d all be perfect by the time we retire!”

What's in it for Me?

There are many benefits to employing a strength-based approach in your organization and leadership style.

Research suggests that focusing on strengths:

  • Increases engagement, resiliency, and meaning in one's work

  • Raises confidence and success

  • Aids in creating a cohesive environment

  • Encourages appropriate goal-setting

In 2016, Gallup published a study based on data from nearly 50,000 business units, with 1.2 million employees across 22 organizations, in 7 industries and 45 countries. Meta-analysis of this data indicates that workgroups who adopted a strengths-based approach saw:

  • Sales increase 10-19%

  • Profits improve 14-29%

  • Customer engagement increase 3-7%

  • Employee engagement increase 9-15%

  • Turnover decreased 6-16% among low-turnover organizations, and 26-72% in high-turnover organizations


  • 67% of employees who strongly agree that their manager focuses on their strengths or positive characteristics are engaged

  • 2% of employees who strongly disagree that their manager focuses on their strengths or positive characteristics are engaged

Adopting a strengths-based leadership style offers tremendous potential, and evidence over the past two decades suggests significant benefits over traditional, deficit-based approaches.

Travis Russell is Owner Principal of Artisan HR, which grows nonprofit and small business leaders through individualized coaching and training. He can be reached at travis@artisanhr.com. Learn more about Artisan HR at www.artisanhr.com.

For more information on the Gallup Strengths Study (2016), visit here.

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