The One Thing You Need to Know...About Great Managing, Great Leading, and Sustained Individual Success, by Marcus Buckingham (Free Press, 2005)

[This is Part Two.  Part One is here.] 

The mediocre manager believes that most things are learnable and therefore that the essence of management is to identiry each person's weaker areas and eradicate them.

The great manager...believes that the most influential qualities of a person are innate and therefore that the essence of management is to deploy these innate qualities as effectively as possible and so drive performance. 

I find Marcus Buckingham's belief in the essentially unalterable effect of our genetic makeup on our abilities to be disturbing, to say the least.  However, that doesn't change my appreciation of his observation that we spend too much time and effort trying to shore up our areas of weakness, and not enough building on our strengths.  True, we can't afford to ignore our weaknesses, and well-directed efforts at overcoming them are often in order.  Spending the majority of our energy on our strengths, however, generally leads to the most progress, the most satisfaction, and the most achievement.

There's a reason we're strong where we are.  Buckingham didn't put it this way, but God created us as unique individuals, with our own special strengths, and it's reasonable to think he had a purpose in mind.  Why say to one's creator, "You made me good at X, so I'm going to ignore that and work on Y, where you weren't so generous."

Strength builds on strength.  Buckingham indulges in some hard biological explanations of why this is so, but the short version is also obvious:  It's easier to multiply knowledge and skill in an area related to those in which one is already knowledgeable and skilled.  Progress in areas of weakness requires a greater investment of effort and time—often just to get to the point of being mediocre. Building on one's strengths is a more promising path to excellence.

Concentrating on weaknesses also comes, for most people, with a huge psychological burden.

[I]f you really want to ruin your chances of sustained success, ponder your weaknesses, ruminate on your past failings, chew on your flaws.  Pretty soon you'll wonder why it's worth getting out of bed in the morning.

[Y]ou will be more likely to be resilient, persistent, self-confident and effective in those areas where you have developed some mastery, and you will transfer these powerful feelings to new challenges [that] are substantially simlar to your existing areas of mastery.

I'll bet that if you can name someone in your life who consistently inspired you to do be better than you thought you could be, that person focused on your strengths, not your weaknesses.  Couldn't it be that one of the reasons most children dislike school is that the classroom is a place where their weaknesses are always in focus?  Where teachers are rarely concerned with building on their strengths once they've reached an acceptable level of mastery?

There's wisdom in The One Thing You Need to Know that applies far beyond the business world. 

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, December 16, 2007 at 8:41 am | Edit
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Very interesting. I'm not sure what I think. It makes sense, and yet I also can argue against it. Hmm . . .

Posted by IrishOboe on Monday, December 17, 2007 at 2:44 am

Argue away! Because I feel pretty strongly about this. ;) Not that we shouldn't, or can't, do things in many areas, but that concentrating most of our efforts on our weaknesses is cheating our strengths. Like, perhaps, making a student so paranoid of spelling mistakes that the world loses a gifted writer....

I also find this a strong argument for doing one's best to encourage and enable young children to become competent and knowledgeable in as many areas as possible while their brains (and enthusiasms) are still open, young, and malleable. The more they can do, the more they will want to do, and the more they will be able to do.

Posted by SursumCorda on Monday, December 17, 2007 at 6:50 am

Do you have any data for your statement, "most children dislike school"? I hadn't ever heard that statement before, and I suspect it is pretty much the opposite, at least if "children" is defined as up through elementary school years.

Posted by Jon Daley on Thursday, December 20, 2007 at 3:46 pm

Now I find that extraordinary, that you'd never heard of children disliking school, at least at the elementary level. As far as I know it's been nearly universal, in literature, for nearly ever. Everything from the poets (I think it was Longfellow who wrote something about the boy trudging miserably off to school, but I'll have to do some research on that one) to children's books (the Little House series comes to mind immediately, but there are plenty of others) to comics (think Calvin and Hobbes). Rejoicing over "snow days," shouting for joy at the liberty that vacation brings, groaning when vacation ends. Or read John Holt's experiences, as a teacher, of how afraid of school he found students to be. And a bit of immediate, personal, experience: S's Christmas break begins a day early tomorrow because school was cancelled district-wide due to a virus at one of the schools (physical, not computer) -- there may have been some groans from parents who have to worry about daycare, but I'm certain the reaction from students (and teachers) was nearly universal elation.

You must have gone to a very unusual school! But who knows? Maybe it's not as universal as I think. Anyone else have a comment?

Posted by SursumCorda on Friday, December 21, 2007 at 12:05 am

I remember liking school, although there was, starting at perhaps grade four or five, peer pressure not to. It remained uncool to like school until perhaps high school. I don't think I realized at the time how much I enjoyed it, and certainly I didn't enjoy all classes equally, but getting a day off was, I think, usually fun and exciting because you could go and do whatever you liked, such as play for a prolonged time with friends or later in life go on a day trip. That made a day off unique, and thus special, but didn't make school any worse.

Say church was cancelled one Sunday. I think it'd be exciting: I could go away for the weekend! But if it was cancelled the next Sunday, too, I'd start missing it and getting irritated at it being cancelled.

Posted by Stephan on Friday, December 21, 2007 at 12:33 am

I took a small survey yesterday when the Kuhnses came over. Alissa said she wouldn't agree with either extreme - that most kids like or most kids don't like school. John leaned more towards the not liking side.

I appreciate Stephan's analogy.

Posted by joyful on Friday, December 21, 2007 at 8:09 am

You realize, of course, that I don't mean children don't like learning! Learning is more important than just about anything to little children. But school is a different matter. If you had asked me, in elementary school, whether or not I liked school, I would have said yes. But that was because I didn't know anything else. That is, I'm pretty good at adapting to whatever I think is inevitable, and making the best of it, and going to school was as inevitable as brushing one's teeth. You just did it. It was where I saw my friends, and where I learned things and did things. But I do remember always preferring vacation time.

Posted by SursumCorda on Friday, December 21, 2007 at 8:50 am

This is interesting. It's making me think of more things than I have time to post. :) One thing I'm wondering -- this is still a small sample size, but I'm wondering if maybe "kids don't like school" is a little like "parents rejoice when vacation is over and the kids are back in school" -- untrue of those who are usually less vocal about it. (Either because, as Stephan said, it's "uncool" to think that way, or for some other reason.) I read all the comics and hear all the jokes about how parents can't wait for school to start again, but know quite well how untrue it was in my case -- both for me as a parent and for my own parents.

But -- to try to make the point a different way -- think of any part of school (or life, for that matter) where your weaknesses were the main focus: were those happy times?

Posted by SursumCorda on Friday, December 21, 2007 at 11:18 am

Maybe I have selective memory, or maybe I really didn't experience times when my weaknesses were the main focus. Or maybe I'm also an adapter, adapting even before I realize that people are focusing on my weaknesses. Or maybe I'm oblivious to my weaknesses. I'm afraid my contribution to this discussion has run its course...

Posted by Stephan on Friday, December 21, 2007 at 3:00 pm

I was objecting to the term "most". I think I agree with everything that Stephan said. I never saw school as focusing on weaknesses. In fact, since I had so many privileges as being one of the top students, it was a great place to be encouraged.

I remember one time Mom said something about if I ever asked to stay home from school, she knew we should go to the doctor, because it had to serious, where at least one of my siblings would ask to stay home, and they may or may not be forced to go.

A day off might have been if there was something interesting to do, so I suppose you could say that it was "all I knew", though the summer months and winter vacations provided lots of opportunities for various things and for mom to revert to her famous lines such as, "Uh oh, you're not bored are you? I have just the perfect cleaning task for you."

I knew of some kids in middle school that tried to get out of school - but once the teachers figured out kids were getting out-of-school suspensions on purpose, they created in-school suspensions and then "Saturday school" in high school. Which I knew of the kids liked the Saturday school program, since it had some semi-forced disciplined time to do your homework - ie. you are going to sit in the library for four hours, so you might as well do some work. And, there was occasionally time for some basketball or something.

Off-topic, but I was just reminded of the time my name got on the Saturday school list, and a teacher was so astounded that she blurted it out in the middle of her class to all the students, so I got comments from everyone the rest of the week, until people figured out that there was some sort of typo or something.

I have heard parents not liking when there are days off, and worse, half-days, or delayed start, since it messes with the work and travel schedules. But, that was mostly (entirely?) from parents who both worked.

Thinking some more about the "focus on weaknesses", I suppose it could be that I don't really care about that, and I like criticism, and so wouldn't really have minded, for the most part at least. As long as the teacher is correct - being publicly told that I am wrong when they don't know what they are talking about is annoying.

Posted by Jon Daley on Monday, December 24, 2007 at 4:39 pm
Building on Strengths
Excerpt: As I wrote earlier, one important idea I took from Marcus Buckingham's The One Thing You Need to Know is the value of expending more energy in our areas of strength than in where we are weak.  Self-evident?  Maybe, but in practice we often te...
Weblog: Lift Up Your Hearts!
Date: June 26, 2008, 8:23 am
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