I invited several top leaders, authors, and bloggers to share their wisdom with Leadership Freak reades. Thanks to Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner for contributing this insightful post challenging the strengths myth.

From the ancient literature on leadership that searched for the individual “kissed by the gods” (charisma) to historical “great man” approaches (already limited by gender biases), people have been searching for the magic elixir that explains leadership success.

The current fascination is the concept of strengths.

learning leadership

Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with the notion that people are more proficient at or prefer to engage in some activities than others. But the strengths approach has been misapplied to mean that you should take on only tasks in which you are strong, not waste your time attending to your weakness, and in areas where you aren’t strong and don’t have natural talent, you or the organization should assign those tasks to other people.

That’s also not to say that people shouldn’t attend to their strengths or that they aren’t generally happier if they’re using them at work, but the emphasis on strengths has fundamentally discouraged people from becoming better leaders.

To become an exemplary leader you have to challenge yourself.

Over the 35 years we’ve been researching leadership, we’ve consistently found that challenge characterizes every single personal-best leadership experience. And when you confront situations that test you, it’s highly likely that you’ll have to develop new skills and overcome existing weaknesses. You simply can’t do your best without searching for new opportunities, doing things you’ve never done, making mistakes, and learning from them.

The truth is that the best leaders are the best learners.

Whether it’s enhancing your existing strengths or overcoming your weaknesses, learning is the master skill. Becoming the best leader you can be is not about settling for what you can do today, it’s about stretching yourself and learning continually. It’s about stepping out to the edge of your capabilities and asking a bit more of yourself.

How might leaders challenge themselves?

Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner are the coauthors of the award-winning and bestselling The Leadership Challenge.

Jim is the Dean’s Executive Fellow of Leadership and Barry is the Accolti Endowed Professor of Leadership in the Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University. This blog is adapted from their new book, Learning Leadership: The Five Fundamentals of Becoming an Exemplary Leader (2016) by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner (San Francisco: The Leadership Challenge, A Wiley Brand).