In our rapidly changing and complex world, for those fortunate to have the opportunities and skills,  there has never been a better time to develop and grow in your chosen field or profession. However, in many ways this is a double edged sword. The further you rise and develop, the more responsibilities and expectations will come your way. With more opportunities will come more responsibility and more people will look to you for guidance, leadership and direction. Will you have the depth of character and resources to handle that apparent success? Or as David Allen succinctly puts it, “The better you get, the better you’d better get!”


To put that another way, the skills and talent that got you out of Egypt (the mental constraints you find yourself in) are not necessarily the same ones that will get you to your Promised Land.

It is your self-leadership skills that will be the limiting factor which will determine whether or not you can thrive and grow for the long haul. That is,  whether you can fulfil and meet the expectations of others and even yourself.

In other words, it is your self-leadership that will determine how much you find yourself in the zone of your strengths (flow as we have previously discussed) or frustrated and even despondent.

In 1999, Peter Drucker, who has been described as one of the greatest management thinkers of the 20th century, wrote a paper for the Harvard Business Review entitled “Managing Oneself”. In this paper he explained how understanding and knowing oneself is vital to ensuring success in life and all that we are called to be and do. He outlines 5 critical questions he challenges every leader to reflect on.

In this post we are going to look in detail at the first question. It is absolutely critical to ask yourself this question if you are going to thrive and not just get by. What is that first question?

It is what are my strengths?

That is so rarely a question we feel comfortable asking ourselves. It can feel self-promoting and even egotistical. Ask most people the question what are your strengths, and they are likely either to give you a blank stare or focus on what they are not good at. But as Drucker says:

“…a person can perform only from strength. One cannot build performance on weaknesses, let alone on something one cannot do at all.”

In previous centuries this was less important as our role in society was much more determined by social standing or class. It was practically impossible to get out of societal expectations. However, with the impact of globalisation and technology, especially for the middle classes, there has been an explosion of choices and potential directions we can travel. We need to know our strengths in order to know where we belong. That is where we belong to make the best contribution in terms of serving a need and finding the fulfilment we all crave. Or as Howard Thurman puts it, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

According to Drucker, the only way to really discover our strengths is by what he calls feedback analysis.

“Whenever you make a key decision or take a key action, write down what you expect will happen. Nine or 12 months later compare the actual results with your expectations. I have been practising this method for 15 to 20 years now and every time I do it, I am surprised. The feedback analysis showed me for instance – and to my great surprise – that I have an intuitive understanding of technical people, whether they are engineers or accountants or market researchers. It also showed me that I don’t really resonate with generalists.”

From this position Drucker argues it is possible within 2 to 3 years to know where your strengths lie. It will also show you where you aren’t competent and where you have no strengths and can’t perform.

There are important actionable implications that follow from this feedback analysis

1. Above all concentrate on your strengths. Put yourself in positions where your strengths can produce results.

2. Work on steadily improving your strengths. By self-reflection and analysis you can quickly see where you need to improve skills or acquire new ones.

3. Discover where your intellectual arrogance is causing disabling ignorance and overcome it. The important insight Drucker makes is that many people with great expertise in one area tend to look down on those who are skilled in other areas. For example, great engineers tend to take pride in not understanding anything about people. They seem to believe that human beings are too disorderly for the engineering mind. But in the end this is self-defeating and will act as a lid to further growth and development.

I have to confess I have been no where near as deliberate as Drucker advocates. Having said that, I am also aware that my strengths lie in the areas of working collaboratively with others while maintaining a separate role and identity. While I need time to think and reflect, I enjoy the stimulation of a small closely knit team.

Finally quoting Drucker:

“One should waste as little effort as possible on improving areas of low competence. It takes far more energy and work to improve from incompetence to mediocrity than it takes to improve from first-rate performance to excellence. And yet most people – especially mow teachers and organisations – concentrate on making incompetent performers into mediocre ones. Energy, resources and time should go instead to making a competent performer into a star performer.”

(For more on this point also see the post What Do We Mean By Education?)

Here are some questions that will help you to develop a deep understanding of your strengths on a practical level (We’ll go into more detail on this in a future post)

How do you work?
Do you assimilate information better by reading or hearing others discuss it?
Do you perform better as a decision maker or an adviser?
Do you prefer to work in a predictable environment or do you thrive on a stressful environment with a lot of ambiguity?

What are your values?
What do you see as your most important responsibilities for living a worthy life?
Do your organization’s ethics resonate with your values? If not, you’re headed for a career of frustration and poor performance

Where do you belong?
Taking into consideration your strengths and your preferred work style, what kind of work environment would you fit into easily? Get this right and you’ll transform yourself from being an acceptable to a star performer.

It is then you can most powerfully ask what can you contribute to your organization and/or environment?

What thoughts, comments and reflections does the question of being clear on your strengths raise for you?