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The problem with Marcus Buckingham is…

…how some people interpret what he is saying. I have a lot of time for Marcus Buckingham. But, I think there is a BIG problem with how he and Gallup (the company whose ‘strengths-based’ research provides the foundation for his current work) have been interpreted.

Clifton’s Strengthsfinder, the basis of the ‘play to your strengths’ argument, did and does, help leaders identify areas they are naturally weak at and then think team-wide to plug their own weaknesses with other members of the team who have strengths in that area.

But, what we really need to identify is not areas that we are naturally bad at and will never be good at. We need to identify areas that we may not be paying enough attention to or may not realize are important.

There’s a whole realm of ‘what we don’t know’ that the ‘play to your strengths’ argument can encourage us (unintentionally) to ignore.

Yes, play to your strengths. But weaknesses in performance can be down to a lack of awareness that a particular area of leadership is indeed important and could improve our overall performance (rather than something that we have tried and know we aren’t good at and never will be good at).

Donald Rumsfeld once clumsily tried to divide the world’s dangers into things we know, things we don’t know and things we don’t know we don’t know, and to say that the last is the most dangerous.

This was a clumsy rendering (ahem: excuse that word) of Fernando Flores’s taxonomy in which he splits the world into things we know we know, things we know we don’t know and things we don’t know that we don’t know. The last is the area for growth that concentrating exclusively on what you already do well can lead you to miss.

So, I feel there is a problem with how Buckingham’s work is interpreted, in my view (though I applaud much of it), in that it can be interpreted in a way that stifles our own growth as leaders, and the growth of others.

As a footnote, the puritan in me also sees a bit of 1960s hippy culture in Buckingham’s “Play to your strengths and stop focussing on weaknesses” mantra that appeals to the Boomer generation that is now in senior and mid-manager positions (I’m at the tail end of it, so count myself in and have to work against this tendency myself). It’s a self-indulgent “Life’s short. I’m at the stage of my career where If I don’t like it, I shouldn’t have to do it,” Boomer tendency.

I agree with a vast part of the Gallup work. But, I think a lot of its enthusiastic takeup is based on that last point, above: a justification for “Wow, at last I have a big business consultancy giving me permission and a rationale for not doing the things I don’t like doing any more.”

And if you ask Buckingham and Gallup, they’ll tell you that’s not what they mean at all.

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