ON STRENGTHS-BASED LEADERSHIP
25 March 2016
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
I have always liked this quote, whether or not it can be attributed to Albert Einstein. People can grow, people can learn new skills, people can expand their areas of expertise. Ultimately, however, people will usually do an excellent job if they are allowed to build on their strengths, if they are valued for their abilities, if they are given the freedom to do what they are good at and what they enjoy.
As managers and leaders, we can be all too quick to look at deficiencies in those who work for us, or to try and mould staff so that they fit the role description for the job they have been appointed for rather than try and mould the job description so that it fits the colleague we have appointed. Whilst focusing on someone’s strengths empowers them and makes them feel valued and willing to go the extra mile, we do lose people along the way if we constantly focus on what is lacking.
A few years ago, when I was looking for a new position in the education sector, I saw a job ad from a school in the UK that advertised for two Deputy Heads. There was no job description for either of these two positions. The ad simply said something on the lines of: “The job descriptions will be drawn up in consultation with suitable candidates and will take into account their strengths and preferences.” I did not apply (I think the school was in the wrong location for me at the time), but I vividly remember that I thought this to be a marvellous idea and one worth bearing in mind.
It is interesting: most schools these days pride themselves on their holistic ethos – a much overused buzzword in education, and yet a highly important concept, in which I whole-heartedly believe. Translating it into plain English: in a school with a holistic ethos you try to educate the whole person, and you try to tap into each student’s strengths. You give enrichment and extension activities to the academically gifted, but you value no less the musically talented, or the great thespians, or the good citizens who lead others as prefects or captains, or the creative writers, or the keen sportsmen and sportswomen.
You find out what each student excels at, and you nurture their talents and allow them to play to their strengths. You will still aim at giving the less sporty children an opportunity for healthy exercise, and you will still aim at improving a weak mathematician’s score through extra help and tutoring. The quote about the fish and the tree does not imply that people are not teachable. But you do not usually force your students to conform to an inflexible role description. You gather knowledge and data about their background, talents and abilities, and you adjust your expectations based on this knowledge. This is a very important part of differentiated education, holistic ethos and pastoral care, and if done well has a key role to play in looking after student wellbeing.
For the sake of staff wellbeing: we need to do the same for our colleagues. Yes, we need to stretch them beyond their comfort zone at times, but not make them into something they are not. Some senior staff dread the outward facing part of their role and prefer beavering away in their offices on important paperwork chores; forcing them into public speaking would be their worst nightmare. Others love the interaction with their students, staff and parents and the public communication through the spoken or the written word; forcing them to restrict their interaction with stakeholders would not make good use of their talents and people skills.
All of these roles, the outward facing ones that promote a school, increase enrolments and engender trust in the community, and the administrative ones behind closed doors that look after its essential business needs, are crucial for the smooth running of the school and its perception by the public. It is okay - the secret of success lies in allocating the right tasks to the right people and to match talents and preferences of your senior colleagues with the appropriate portfolio of responsibilities.
It is a fact well proven that a job that tears you in too many directions and does not allow you to play to your strengths and build on them is a major stress factor. Wise leaders will recognize this. If we look at job descriptions as round holes, we need to factor in that people are usually square pegs and don’t always fit into them as neatly as we may have hoped. Let us mould and adapt the job descriptions, not the people – at least until we have taught the fish to climb a tree.