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Building Braver, Bolder Leaders: The Three Core Components of Leading with Strengths

Updated: Feb 27


I want to live in a world with braver, bolder leaders.

Brené Brown.

There are supervisors everywhere. You have one. Your supervisor has one. Your friends have one. Maybe you are one. Maybe you supervise other supervisors.


Supervisors come in many forms:

Some are red. And some are blue.

Some are old. And some are new.

Some are sad. And some are glad.

And some are very, very bad.

Dr. Seuss, “Red Fish, Blue Fish”


I was a supervisor for 20 years. During that time, I didn’t get much training on how to be a supervisor. I got advice. I went to conferences, so maybe I went to some sessions on supervision. Yet in spite of being put in charge of countless employees over the years, I never received formal training on how to be one. Or even more importantly, on how to be a leader as a supervisor. (Most of the leadership training I did was about developing student leaders, not my own leadership skills.) Managing people and leading them are two very different things.


Since most promotions bring with them the responsibility of supervision, how can it be that most places do not have formal systems in place to train the people who so greatly impact others? How do we learn what it takes to be a good supervisor – a good leader? If you’ve been a supervisor for years, how do you make sure you’re on the right track? If you’re new, where do you even start?


There are tons of leadership books, scholars, and gurus out there. Ironically because there is so much information about leading people – often with different strategies – it can be overwhelming. One thing I’ve found extremely helpful is using Strengths – specifically Gallup’s CliftonStrengths (formerly StrengthsFinder) talent assessment as a framework. When I say framework, CliftonStrengths gives you a baseline for you recognizing your own talents as well as a rich language to help you better understand how you use them every day, how to develop your talents into Strengths, how to identify your weaknesses, and how to best communicate with the people around you. The nice thing about CliftonStrengths is that it doesn’t exclude other resources as you grow and develop, but rather serves as a lens to help you understand how YOU and your unique talent set can adapt and use these other sources to develop your supervisory and leadership skills.


Gallup has studied managing and leadership through the lens of Strengths for decades. Their research has identified three core components you need to understand when leading with Strengths. These can help any supervisor, no matter how experienced, better understand what you need to be a successful leader:


KNOW WHY PEOPLE FOLLOW

In order to be a leader, you have to have followers (and we don’t mean on social media). Your employees may do what you ask because you’re their boss, but that’s not the same as being their leader. If you really want to make a difference you need to meet your follower’s four basic needs: Trust, Compassion, Stability, and Hope. I’ll do another blog going into greater detail on these four areas, but briefly:


Trust | If your team doesn’t trust what you say or what you do, engagement and productivity will suffer. Successful teams don’t need to discuss respect, honesty, or integrity, because they live it. If you and your team are talking about these topics often or if you feel like your team isn’t giving you the respect you deserve, it may be time to step back and think about whether you’ve earned it. That is not to say there aren’t legitimate problems with certain employees, but if you’ve ever watched Nanny 911 or any parenting show that deals with out of control kids you know that nine times of ten time the root of the problem is the parent, not the children. In this case it may well be the leader, not the employees.


Compassion | Employees need to know someone in the organization cares about them, their wellbeing, and their development. When a supervisor has compassion for their employees, they are more likely to be more engaged, remain in the organization, be more productive, and treat your customers (students, parents, etc.) better. That doesn’t mean you need to start getting up in everyone’s personal business, become their therapist, or let people slide if they’re having a rough time. It does mean you need to take the time to know your staff and what’s going on with them, because employees are not cogs in a machine. They are human beings who come to work bringing their complete selves each day. If you ignore this fact, their wellbeing suffers and therefore so does their ability to produce quality work for you and your organization.


Stability | When employees are confident in the organization’s future, they are nine times more likely to be engaged. While you probably aren’t the person who controls everything is in your organization, what you can control is transparency of information. When people aren’t given accurate and timely information, they spend their times filling in the blanks with rumors and conspiracies. This isn’t because people don’t know how to mind their own business – it’s because ultimately this IS their business. Think about the Titanic. If you’re on a sinking ship, are you worried about whether someone is happy with their entrée in first class? No. You’re worried about what’s going to happen to you and that’s where your energy goes. You may think hiding or obscuring the truth is better for the team, especially when there are many unknowns, but information has a way of getting out. If you don’t get ahead of it in an honest way (see Trust above), it will take on a life of its own.


Hope | People want to feel enthusiastic about the future of your organization. When people lose hope, they lose confidence, become disengaged, and feel helpless. Again, you’re probably not the person in charge of the entire organization, but think about how you spend your time. Are you rushing from crisis to crisis? Do you usually just focus on the daily minutia to stay on track? When leadership focuses on reacting to situations, it conveys a lack of control. When you don’t take time away from the daily grind to look at and plan for the future, your followers don’t know where they’re going and can’t get excited about the future. Identifying future opportunities creates hope, even in the midst of trying and uncertain times.


INVEST IN YOUR STRENGTHS

When you think about investing in Strengths for you and your team, the first place to start is with you. Knowing yourself – your strengths, weaknesses, and biases – is just as important as knowing your team. If you don’t know who you are, you end up getting in your own way. What people don’t always understand is that our talents color how we see the world. Anytime you interact with someone, start a project, lead a meeting, or even plan to do any of these things, your talents are driving. So, if you don’t know what your talents are, how you use them, and how to develop them into Strengths, then knowing your teams’ talents won’t be very helpful.


Investing in the Strengths process means discovering your talents, how you’re using them – both productively and in ways that are getting in your way -- and figuring out where you need to learn and grow to turn those talents into Strengths: “the ability to consistently provide near-perfect performance in a specific activity.” When you understand yourself – including how your talents are the lens through which you see other people and their behaviors – you are in a better position to make sure you are not getting in your own way in your leadership role. As an added bonus, investing in your Strengths increases your self-esteem which in turn increases your job satisfaction and wellbeing. Score!


Keep in mind that developing your talents is a life-long process, so starting with yourself doesn’t mean finishing with yourself before moving onto your team. We usually learn more about ourselves and how we impact others when we start engaging in this process with others. Strengths show up, and often grow, in the context of relationships. You shouldn’t expect that “doing Strengths” with your team will solve all your team’s problems, if you’re not investing in yourself as a manager too.


MAXIMIZE YOUR TEAM

In order to maximize your team, you need to know their strengths and weaknesses. Then you need to give them opportunities develop and learn how to better work together. Most people have job descriptions (whether or not those descriptions are accurate is another story). But job descriptions are static. Our work environment is dynamic. It is constantly changing and adapting as our institutions and the world around us changes. And job descriptions only address what that individual is responsible for, not how they’ll accomplish those tasks. That’s why you can have five different people with the same job description and each one is successful in that role in a different way. Looking at people’s talents can help you identify strategies to make sure everything, and everyone, in your department is on the way to becoming excellent. When your team members’ work in their Strengths-Zone, they:


· Are six times more likely to be engaged

· Treat students, parents, faculty, and their own staff better

· Achieve more on a daily basis

· Have more positive and innovative moments

· Have more positive interactions with their coworkers


Let’s unpack that last bullet point a bit more. If you’re lucky, your team will magically get along and never have any conflict. BAHAHAHAHA. Your team – no matter how well they get along – will experience conflict at times. The beauty of using Strengths is that it has a rich vocabulary that gives your team the tools to proactively communicate about themselves and their talents. Whenever you have a meeting or discuss a new project, everyone on your team sees the situation differently based on their talent set. Conflicts can occur because people need different information, have different priorities, interact with others differently, etc., based on their unique set of talents. When people know this about themselves and others, they can talk about it early so everyone can get on the same page – or at least better understand what page their teammate is on. This can help avoid and diffuse conflict among your staff.


Supervising is hard. Leading is even harder. This one blog post isn’t going to turn you into a great leader, but hopefully it’s given you some structure as you start thinking about your journey to get there. Let’s work together to build a world of better, braver, and bolder leaders, for Brené. She works hard, so she deserves it. Come to think of it, we all do.