DVM, BCC, PCC
Go With the Flow co-columnist Dr. Jeff Thoren is the founder of Gifted Leaders and an expert coach specializing in leadership and team development. He is one of only five veterinarians in the world to hold a credential from the International Coaching Federation.Read Articles Written by Jeff Thoren
If you want to inspire, mobilize and sustain human energy in yourself and others, is the most effective way to focus on fixing your weaknesses or developing your strengths? While you’re thinking about it, consider this story:
Once upon a time, the animals decided they should do something meaningful to meet the problems of the new world. So they organized a school.
They adopted an activity curriculum of running, climbing, swimming and flying. To make it easier to administer, all the animals took all the subjects.
The duck was excellent at swimming. In fact, he was better than his instructor! However, he only passed flying and was very poor at running. Since he was so slow in running, he had to drop swimming and stay after school to practice running. This caused his webbed feet to be badly worn, so he became only average in swimming. But average was quite acceptable, and nobody except the duck worried about it.
The rabbit started at the top of his class in running but developed a nervous twitch in his leg muscles because he had so much makeup work to do in swimming.
The squirrel was excellent at climbing, but he encountered constant frustration in flying class because his teacher made him start from the ground up instead of from the treetop down. He developed a charley horse from overexertion, so he only got a C in climbing and a D in running.
And then there was the eagle, who was considered the problem child and was severely disciplined for being a non-conformist. In climbing classes, he beat all the others to the top but insisted on using his own way to get there.
Can you see yourself in the story? Perhaps you’re one of the animals who feels compelled to be a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. Or maybe you’re the school’s instructor, who struggles with the prospect of trying to create a group of well-rounded students.
According to surveys, the odds are you’re not a lucky duck who is allowed every day to do what you do best, such as swim. In the 1950s, management consultant Peter Drucker first highlighted the importance of focusing on the development of individual and collective strengths. Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton echoed that message in their 2001 book, “Now, Discover Your Strengths.” But sadly, most people think they don’t have the opportunity to play to their strengths at work consistently.
Throughout our professional careers and lifetimes, both of us were repeatedly reminded that we are uniquely gifted. The uniqueness informed our vocational and non-vocational choices and motivated us to pursue specific accomplishments and results. Most importantly, we discovered that when we bring our gifts to a job or role that requires them, we are the most productive, the most satisfied and the most successful. When we pour our energies into what we are gifted to do, we get more energy back.
That’s starting to sound a bit like “flow,” isn’t it?!
The Ties Between Flow and Our Strengths
Flow involves feeling fully aware, alive and in the moment without self-criticism or distraction. It centers around activities we find inherently valuable and where we can be incredibly focused. It’s an optimal state of feeling and performing at our best.
So, if mastering flow is a path to high engagement and performance, building on our strengths can enhance the process. The upside, we believe, is that for most people, working on developing strengths is more appealing and fun than trying to overcome weaknesses.
According to business consultant Jack Zenger, compelling data supports the idea that when adults focus on their strengths, they will have far greater success in their personal development. He contends that miraculous results can be achieved if people maximize their strengths and then put in the required study and practice.
Keeping in mind the connection between mastering flow and playing to our strengths, we’ll offer four thoughts and ideas to you as potential next steps.
Adopt a Strengths Mindset
Embrace Buckingham’s idea that “Each person’s greatest room for growth is in the areas of his or her greatest strength.” This means letting go of the more common but flawed assumption that “Each person’s greatest room for growth is in his or her areas of greatest weakness.” Doing it can be tricky since much of our educational and work experiences might have centered on addressing gaps in our skills and competencies.
Discover Your Strengths
Understanding how you’re made is the key to discovering what you’re made to do. Here are assessments we’ve used over the years to become more aware of our strengths:
- Clifton Strengths by Gallup: bit.ly/3mcfp0Z
- SYPartners Superpowers Assessment: bit.ly/32d616p
- Values in Action Survey of Character Strengths: bit.ly/3m7Fv5m
Also, one definition of a strength is a talent, behavior or trait that others recognize you as being really good at. So, don’t hesitate to seek regular feedback from friends, family, peers, co-workers and bosses about the inherent strengths they see in you.
Build Your Strengths
To fully develop your strengths, be very intentional about the growth and learning opportunities you choose to pursue. Training should be applied to developing what is needed (the supporting knowledge and skills) for the gifts and talents you possess, not to impart gifts that aren’t there.
Another essential element of developing your strengths is choosing activities with the right amount of challenge relative to your current skill level. If the challenge is too great, fear can get in the way. On the other hand, if the challenge is too easy, you can lose interest and stop paying attention. Author Steve Kotler suggests that “Flow appears near the emotional midpoint between boredom and anxiety, in what scientists call the ‘flow channel’ — the spot where the task is hard enough to make us stretch, not hard enough to make us snap.”
We close with a quote from the late Max De Pree, onetime CEO of the Herman Miller office furniture company and author of the classic book “Leadership Is an Art”:
“The leader owes the follower productive conversations about the gifts that the follower brings to the organization and the kinds of contributions the follower wishes to make — so that tasks can be designed that give that person hope. In organizations that work, hope is a very functional force.”
De Pree made an important connection: Contributing to the greater organizational good by sharing our unique gifts and strengths generates hope. So, regardless of whether you’re a leader or follower, you can play a role in being part of this critical dialogue. And couldn’t we all use a bit more hope right now?
HE SAID IT
“Our weaknesses are here to stay; our strengths have hardly been touched. When we focus on our strengths, we confront ourselves with our freedom and other people with theirs. This is so much more powerful than the usual deficiency-oriented view, which only reminds us of our boundaries.” — Author and consultant Peter Block