We’re often so focused on what we need to do to improve that we don’t recognise our own strengths and what we do well.
Rather than focusing on what’s wrong or what could be better, a strengths approach focuses on what is right, what is working, and what is already strong so that you can use the best parts of yourself to overcome challenges, build resilience, and thrive.
But how do you discover and build upon your strengths? And how do you inspire others to do the same? These are the questions we’ll be exploring today and in next week’s episode too.
Specifically today, I will:
- Unpack what strengths are and clarify some common misconceptions
- Share the benefits of a strengths-based approach
- Offer two different ways in which you can discover your strengths – with strategies and resources
- Suggest 3 ways you can use and develop your strengths in leadership and life
Tune in and discover how to ignite your strengths and thrive in leadership and life.
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Prefer to read? Check out the article below.
Uncover your strengths and thrive in life and leadership
Many of us focus on what we must do to improve on an individual level as well as at a whole school or organisation level. It’s probably quite easy for you to articulate your EBIs (Even – Better – Ifs) and key areas for development, but can you do the same for your strengths? Do you know what your strengths are and how to build on them? We often don’t even recognise our own strengths, but there are many benefits to knowing them and using a strengths-based approach to leadership and to life.
What are strengths?
Strengths are the underlying qualities that energise us. A strengths-based approach focuses on what’s right, what’s working, and what’s going well. When you know what’s already strong you can use these best parts of yourself to overcome challenges, build resilience, and truly thrive. One definition, amongst many from positive psychology, is from Hutchinson and Brown. They say that strengths are our natural abilities, which we’re motivated to use and when applied they make us feel energised and lead to sustainable good performance. Another definition from Dr Ryan Niemic is that strengths are positive traits which are core to our identity, our doing, and our behaviour. Ultimately, strengths are something that you are good at and, crucially, something that brings you joy and energy.
Research from VIA Institute on Character shows that if you are aware of your strengths then you are nine times more likely to be flourishing. Being aware of and using strengths in leadership, and in life more generally, can help us to feel happier. They help us to have higher levels of self-esteem, greater self-confidence, and often more energy as well as helping to build resilience and be more engaged. From a work perspective, knowing and using strengths can help us to improve performance, achieve goals, improve productivity, and teamwork, and overall give us a greater sense of wellbeing.
There’s a common misconception that skills and competencies are the same as strengths, but that’s not quite the case. A skill or competence is what we’re good at or capable of doing, but in reality, it actually depletes us. For example, for me, I’ve got an eye for detail and I can plan meticulously – I’m pretty good at development planning. However, I would much rather be spotting the gaps and designing creative solutions to improve. When I spend my time in the detailed planning process, rather than creative solution-finding, I can feel drained. Over time this means that I’m more likely to disengage. Competencies do have their place and definitely matter, but strengths perhaps matter more – they can bring inner and outer sparkle to you and your leadership.
Another argument against strengths is that if we only focus on strengths, then we ignore weaknesses. In the same way that focusing on the positive is not the same as ignoring the negative, the same can be said for strengths and weaknesses. Hutchinson and Brown explain that when a weakness is applied it makes you feel drained and doesn’t lead to sustainable good performance. If you’re not good at something and you don’t enjoy it, you’re unlikely to get great at it. If you spend your time and energy focusing on trying to improve a weakness, over time it’s going to negatively impact your well-being alongside your performance. Instead, focusing on building strengths has the opposite effect.
Uncover your strengths through your own experiences
There are a few ways in which you can discover your strengths through self-reflection and awareness building.
Peak experience activity
This activity is a reflection on your experiences. I also mention this activity in the podcast ‘Seeing the power of your values: leading with authenticity and purpose’ as we not only uncover our values from when we’re at our best but also our strengths.
- Think of a time when you were at your best, when you felt alive, and when things were going really well. What was the experience? Why was it such a peak experience? How did you feel about it?
- Write. Write for 7 minutes. Don’t overthink it, self-correct, or go back over and re-read what you’ve read, just completely free-write.
- Read through your writing and highlight all the strengths that you were using in this experience. Were you courageous? Were you demonstrating empathy? Were you learning or communicating? Highlight what feels good for you.
Questions to identify strengths
These are some really powerful questions from Hutchinson and Brown that will get you thinking about experiences you’ve had to help you identify, uncover and spotlight your strengths:
- What motivates you?
- What do you really enjoy doing?
- What gives you a sense of fulfilment?
- What qualities have others noticed about you?
- When do you get lost in an activity? When are you in flow?
- And also, when do you get or feel a buzz of energy after an activity? A feeling that you’ve been your best self?
Build awareness throughout the day
This just means strength spotting in yourself. Check in with yourself at different times throughout the day and notice how you feel in the moment: Are you engaged? Are you interested? Are you feeling lively, energised and good? Or, are you feeling a little bit flat, tired, distracted and bored? Take time to think about what you’re actually doing at that time. You could keep a record over a few weeks of what you were doing and how you felt and see what emerges. You could also ask someone else, either at home or at work, to point out when they think you’re energised or drained; your facial expressions and tone of voice will give this away.
Uncover your strengths through strengths assessments
Another way to discover or uncover your strengths is through assessments. There are many out there, but these are three that I like and have used myself (I’m not affiliated with any of them). I’ve also used them with my clients.
VIA Institute on Character
The VIA Institute on Character offers a strengths test with a free version available. The research behind this survey is possibly one of the most impressive research projects in positive psychology with the strengths being valued universally and cross-culturally. There are 24 strengths which are categorised into 6 virtues of wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. The 24 strengths are powerful and knowing them can be really helpful. This survey is often used in schools and with students too with some amazing boosts in well-being, inclusion and performance. The website itself is also packed with helpful information and further research as well if you want to explore this further. In this strength survey, my top signature strength is love of learning – that’s 100% correct!
The second assessment tool is CliftonStrengths. This assessment is not free, but it’s one of the original works on strengths and is actually really good and really powerful. As with VIA, there’s a huge amount of research behind the strengths profile, and this covers 34 themes and talents. The profiles that you receive are detailed, and they offer a range of suggestions to use and build on your strengths as well. My top strength on this assessment was Learner. See the theme?
StrengthsProfile by Cappfinity
Again, the StrengthsProfile by Cappfinity is backed by research. It’s not free, but again, it’s one I really like. There are 60 strengths and you can get a number of different types of reports. I love this one because it gives you four different ways of looking at your strengths that can really help you to understand yourself and the specific differences between strengths and competencies. There isn’t a learner strength in this one, but my top strength is growth and I’m always looking for ways to learn, develop and grow.
It’s really helpful to uncover your strengths through a combination of exploring your own experiences and strengths assessments. It can be helpful to learn and grow from the actual profile and check-in with yourself to see whether it sounds like you.
How can we use and build our strengths?
Here are 3 simple ways to use and build your strengths:
1. Consider new ways to express a strength each day and express that strength in a new way each day for at least a week. For example, for the strength of curiosity, you could try a new food and get curious about a new food every day of the week. Or, for humour, you might watch a comedy show or find a new way of laughing every day. Try them out and be playful!
2. Assess how you are currently using your strengths. You take your top 3 to 5 strengths and think about the extent to which you use each one in your daily life. You might want to number these and then think about and write down what that looks like. Think about when, how, and where you use these strengths and how they make you feel. Then consider if you could use this strength even more and create a plan to do this. So, your awareness of your strengths through this activity leads to action.
3. Keep a strengths journal. Do this at the end of the day. Take a few minutes to write down something that went well that day and what the strength was that contributed to this. This will help to build and deepen awareness, enabling you to grow your use of strengths.
I hope you enjoy uncovering your strengths as much as I love coaching people to discover and boost them. Strengths really are your superpowers!
Hutchinson, E., & Brown, C. (2021). The strengths-based organization: How to boost inclusivity, wellbeing and performance. Practical Inspiration Publishing.
Niemiec, R. M. (2018). Character strengths interventions: A field guide for practitioners.