This review will examine Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld’s thesis. In doing so, differing contemporary works on this leadership concept will be surveyed. The Bible will also be consulted to examine the texts Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld appeal to for support. Furthermore, this review will conclude that while there are convincing reasons to avoid expending too much energy on one’s weaknesses, there are indeed times to address weakness. In addition, it is possible that present natural abilities will not necessarily determine the path to the greatest success and present natural strengths may not be the best tools to fulfill God’s call upon one’s life. While focusing on one’s strengths is a leadership quality, understanding the right focus is essential of any leader.
Understanding Winseman, Clifton, and Liesveld
To open their case, Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld go on the offensive against what they call the ‘weakness prevention’ model. This model, according to Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld, dictates, “to become strong, successful, or truly serve God and the world, you must ‘fix’ your weaknesses” (4). They go on to explain that the weakness prevention model demands that one is not ready to serve God until he or she has better developed his or her areas of personal non-talent. Their conclusion: “That thinking is just plain wrong” (5). Instead, 30 years of Gallup’s research is consulted. Drawing from the interviews of more than two million people, they resolve, as previously stated above, “Your will be most successful in whatever you do by building your life around your greatest natural abilities rather than your weaknesses. Your talents should be your primary focus!”(6). This echoes a similar line of thinking from a book Clifton wrote with Marcus Buckingham titled, Now, Discover Your Strengths, which states, “Each person’s greatest room from growth is in the area of his or her greatest strength”(7).
Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld define strength as, “the ability to provide consistent, near-perfect performance in a given activity. This ability is a powerful, productive combination of talent, skill, and knowledge”(8). In addition, they have developed 34 themes of talent and offer the Gallop Clifton StrengthFinder test to help individuals identify which themes best represent their personal, natural talents. These 34 themes are the various strengths they argue one should remained focused upon and an inability in any of these talent themes is the implied definition of weaknesses. “The key to building strength,” Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld argue, “is first to identify your dominant themes of talent, then delve into those themes to discover your greatest talents, and finally produce a strength by complementing those talents with knowledge and skill related to the task” (9). Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld define talent as, “naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied. Unlike skills and knowledge, talents naturally exist within you and cannot be acquired. They are your inborn predispositions” (10).
“Your talents are a precious gift from God,” write Winseman, Clifton, and Leisveld, “They influence how you see, experience, and make your contribution to the world” (11). Preaching, teaching, apologetics, musical or artistic ability, athletic tendencies, or showing hospitality with joy for example, are not the kind of talents or strengths Winseman, Clifton, and Leisveld are getting at. Instead, the StrenghtFinder test identifies the talent or strength themes as achiever, activator, adaptability, analytical, arranger, belief, command, communication, competition, connectedness, consistency, context, deliberative, developer, discipline, empathy, focus, futuristic, harmony, ideation, includer, individualization, input, intellection, learner, maximizer, positivity, relator, responsibility, restorative, self-assurance, significance, strategic, and woo (12).
It is clear from Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld’s definitions, that talents are fixed throughout life and are not subject to change. If one were to develop a talent later in life, it might actually be suggested that he or she merely discovered a talent held from birth that had not previously been explored. “From a spiritual viewpoint,” Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld write, “when we deny our talents and instead focus on our weaknesses, on some level, we are telling God that we know best and that God somehow made a mistake in gracing us with our unique mix of talents” (13). It is unclear how Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld might explain those talents (or personality traits) that are developed or lost through a dramatic life event, such as a disability instigated by a physical accident or illness, or the indwelling of the Holy Spirit through faith in Jesus Christ. It is clear however, how Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld feel about engaging in areas that do not reside in one’s list of greatest talents. They coach, “Whenever possible, avoid using your areas of lesser talent. A lesser talent becomes a weakness only when you try to use it” (14). Instead of attempting to use any lesser talents, one should find ways to manage these weaknesses through support systems, much like a person might depend upon eyeglasses for sight, or through complementary partnerships with others (15).
A final method Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld offer to deal with weaknesses is to leverage talents over weaknesses. They provide a case study taken from a man named Robert. Robert volunteered as a counselor although he was not talented in the theme area of Empathy. “But his talents in the Restorative and Strategic themes make up for this and enable him to be involved in a ministry he is really is passionate about,” write Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld (16). This case study is troubling, however. They express that Robert was not a touchy-feely type of guy. It seemed that counseling would not be a good fit but Robert jumped in and really enjoyed it. He received positive feedback and is passionate about it. The implication presented here is that Robert is counseling from other talents and that Robert can develop a counseling skill but cannot ever hold or demonstrate a talent in the theme of Empathy if he was not naturally born with Empathy. According to Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld, it is impossible to learn how to or become naturally talented in the theme of Empathy, regardless of time or outside circumstances.
An Examination of Other Work in the Field
Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld are not the only ones to argue that the minister should focus on his or her strengths rather than weaknesses. It may be helpful to examine of those who have differing views of this essential leadership quality. Dr. Peter Drucker, a managing consultant and writer for example, developed a system for feedback analysis. Based on the results, he suggests the most valuable thing a person can do is to, “concentrate on your strengths. Put yourself where your strengths can produce results” (17). He further encourages his readers to, “work on improving your strengths” (18). Drucker, unlike Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld however, does not suggest that zero effort of any kind should be invested into weaker areas. Instead, he suggests that a person identify those areas where there is little to no chance of even becoming mediocre. In these circumstances he encourages that, “One should waste as little effort as possible 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. […] Energy, resources, and time should go instead to making a competent person into a star performer” (19). While Drucker appears to be in agreement with Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld about focusing on strengths, he is not as ridged on the ability to grow and improve. Drucker simply argues that energy should be used effectively to produce the greatest results, which is not the case when energy is invested into serious weakness. In addition, Drucker provides room for adjustment when one’s greatest strengths or talents are not inline with his or her values. In this case, one should seek to develop and improve strengths that work in tandem with held values (20). And finally, Drucker does not identify a ridged list of strengths or talents but seems to leave that determination up to the individual.
John Maxwell, a respected leader in the area of leadership development is in close agreement with Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld, even citing the work of Buckingham and Clifton. In his book, The 360̊ Leader, Maxwell argues, “Every job required a particular set of skills that employees must possess in order to be really successful. Even someone with great personal strengths and a great ‘fit’ will not truly be working in his strength zone if he doesn’t have all these skills. As a leader, it is your job to make sure your people acquire what they need to win” (21). This argument centers on a leader’s role in best positioning the strengths of a person within an organization, but when assisting the leader to find his or her focus, Maxwell looks at some specific questions that differ from Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld’s approach. Maxwell first asks, “What is required of me?” (22). The answer to this question should help the leader identify what only he or she can do in the organization. This does not necessary come out of the leader’s strengths or even a list of 34 talent themes. It may simply have to do with the requirements of the leader’s role within the organization. The second question Maxwell asks is, “What gives me the greatest return?” (23). Here the end, not the means is the focus. One may be extremely talented or skilled in a particular area or talent theme but if it is not producing the most fruit, than focus should be placed elsewhere, even if it is not the leader’s strongest ability, skill, or talent. And Maxwell’s third question is, “What is the most rewarding?” (24). While it is reasonable to think most people gain the most reward by doing something they are good at, this may not necessarily always be the case. Maxwell believes, “Our best work takes place when we enjoy it” (25).
Some Christian authors on leadership take a slightly different approach. They see the ministry calling from God as the source of strength rather than solely on natural gifting or personality traits. Dr. Reggie McNeal writes, “Spiritual leaders cannot be understood apart from their call because it tells them what game they are playing and keeps them in the game, even when they are discouraged” (26). He goes on to say, “Unlike many people and leaders who are naïve about their talent, self-aware leaders know what they are good at. They know what they bring to the table (and what they don’t). This gives them permission to be intentional with their energies and time, always playing toward their talent” (27). McNeal’s statement is within a broader conversation regarding God-given talent and gifting above mere talent traits. While McNeal seems to agree with Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld, he offers far more credit to God for the leader’s source of strength and talent than they do and he appears open to a wider range of talents.
Dr. J. Oswald Sanders also greatly credits God in regard to spiritual leadership, stating, “Spiritual leadership requires superior spiritual power, which can never be generated by the self. There is no such thing as a self-made spiritual leader. A true leader influences others spiritually only because the Spirit works in and through him to a greater degree than in those he leads” (28). Sanders, unlike Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld suggest that the Christian minister’s strengths are not his or her own, but instead made possible by the power of the Holy Spirit. There is a tremendous difference between the strengths of the secular leader and the pastor serving the Lord as an ambassador. According to Sanders, “[S]piritual leadership transcends the power of the personality and all other natural gifts. The personality of the spiritual leader influences others because it is penetrated, saturated, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. As the leader gives control of his life to the Spirit, the Spirit’s power flows through him to others” (29).
Dr. Dave Earley likewise sees calling as the indicator of where a pastoral leader should place his or her primary focus. Regardless of natural strength, talent, or even personality, Earley argues that the majority of the pastor’s energy and effort should be put into the three things a pastor must do: pray, teach the Word, and equip and mentor leaders (30). Obviously, Earley would draw a clear distinction between the pastor as a leader and the secular leader and his argument suggests that if a pastor is called to ministry as a leader, these three things must either be his or her strengths or become his or her strengths.
Some secular thinkers in the field of leadership disagree with part or all of Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld’s premise. For example, Jim Clemmer argues for improving leadership ability by taking the talents one is good at and becoming great in that talent area. “And it doesn’t matter which competencies we choose;” writes Clemmer, “So we can pick those that are natural strengths, are most relevant to our job, and we’re most energized about developing further” (31). Crammer’s argument stands in sharp contrast to Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld suggestion that by focusing on weaknesses, even if trying to improve upon it, one is telling God that He made a mistake. He also suggests that one can pick a talent area based on the requirements of the job or personal interest. This stands in sharp contrast to Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld’s example of Robert, the man who served as a counselor but would never learn how to be more empathetic.
Dr. Robert Kaplan and Robert Kaiser stand in disagreement with Buckingham and Clifton, saying, “This approach is associated with the book Now, Discover Your Strengths and its self-diagnostic tool, the StrengthsFinder. Like any successful movement however, the strengths movement drove a single issue and inevitably left out a lot” (32). Kaplan and Kaiser do concede however, that Buckingham and Clifton’s idea, the same one championed by Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld is reasonable in light of the “unhealthy fixation on weakness when it came to performance reviews;” but they further argue that “it turns out you can take strengths too far” (33). Kaplan and Kaiser developed the Leadership Versatility Index and used it in a great deal of research that measured vitality, in which they include team morale, engagement, and cohesion, and they measured productivity in areas of both quality and quantity. “We found that taking a strength to an extreme,” writes Kaplan and Kaiser, “is always detrimental to performance, but even a mild tendency to over do it can be harmful. Be a little too forceful, for instance, and your team’s output may improve some – but vitality will take a hit, and weakened morale will eventually undercut productivity. Be a little too enabling, and you may shore up vitality – but productivity will suffer over time, which will in turn erode moral”(34). According to Kaplan and Kaiser, it appears that building ones life entirely around strengths and functioning too much from these strengths may be detrimental to working with, or building strong teams. Kaplan and Kaiser further conclude, “There is power in focusing on your strengths, but it derives from acknowledging them in their totality, from having a keen, finely-tuned awareness of both the good and the harm they can do. Becoming a better leader, then, is not a matter of indiscriminately playing to your strengths, but of continually adjusting their volume to just the right setting for every situation” (35).
Finally, Dr. Jack Zenger examined 6,000 leaders’ strengths and weaknesses and developed a scheme for when a leader should or should not work on a weakness. If the leader’s weakness is a “fatal flaw” Zenger says, “This leader should not spend time working on developing strengths at this time but first correct the obvious flaw. Only then is it useful for this person to work on developing a strength” (36). Zenger conducted an experiment at a packaged food company and found that those who were instructed to focus on their weaknesses made a 12 percent improvement; however, those instructed to further develop their strengths improved by 36 percent. This clearly demonstrates the value of focusing on strengths, but Zenger also found that, “In general, fixing weaknesses is harder than building strengths; but motivated people with low scores need only do a few new things to begin to change those perceptions into positive territory” (37). The key to this may be found in the level of fun to be had in improving strengths rather than correcting weaknesses. Zenger did not engage further into this specific detail but he did notice “people smile when they think about [working on strengths] and frown when they think about working on weakness” (38).
An Examination of the Bible
Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld’s intended readers are Christians. The subtitle of their book is “Discover Your God-Given Talents and Inspire Your Community” (39). Their thesis seeks to apply to Christian leadership; therefore, the contemporary writers in the field are not enough—the Bible must be consulted. If Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld are correct, one should hope to find various examples of strength-focused leadership in God’s Word. In addition, Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld argue that a person’s strengths and talents are found within the 34 talent themes and those strengths and talents are God-given. If this is true, it is reasonable to seek biblical support for the 34 talent themes as well as biblical support that one cannot acquire strengths from additional themes outside of those granted at birth.
Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld offer Moses’s discussion with God about his inability to speak well to Pharaoh as an example of strength-focused leadership. The Apostles’ solution to a disparity in the distribution of bread serves as a case study for strength-focused leadership. And Paul’s discussion on both the Spiritual gifts and his teaching on the diversity among the Body are intended to serve as support for strength-focused leadership as well. To better understand Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld’s position, these texts and how they are used in support of the leadership quality of strength-focus will be examined. Unfortunately, Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld offer no biblical support for the list of 34 talent themes and one would be hard pressed to find much biblical support that these specific talents or personality traits are fixed for life.
Moses and Aaron (Exodus 4)
Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld look to Moses as an example of a leader who built a team in order to cover his weaknesses. They cite Exodus 4:10, which reads, “But Moses said to the Lord, ‘Oh my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue’” (Exod. 4:10, English Standard Version). On its own, this verse may support Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld’s assessment of Moses. “So,” they argue, “God found Moses a partner—Moses’ brother Aaron” (40). This fact is correct, but their appraisal of the Moses’ motivation and God’s intention seems slightly off when taken into the appropriate context. They conclude, “Moses had the talent for leading and for devising strategy, but he couldn’t wow a crowd with his oratory or stand before kings and summon the appropriate words. Aaron could. And together, Moses and Aaron made a great team” (41). Had Moses taken the StrengthsFinder, he would most likely not score high in Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld’s theme of Communication.
Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld fail to continue reading the narrative. In verse 11, the Lord responds to Moses, rhetorically asking, “‘Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD’ Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak’” (Exod. 4:11-12). God’s response seems to suggest that God will provide the words and the skill to Moses. Moses, however, continues to plead with God saying, “‘Oh, My Lord, please send someone else’” (Exod. 4:13). God’s response should not leave the reader thinking that Moses was wisely focusing on his strengths and getting someone else to fill in for his weaknesses. Had this been wisdom on the part of Moses, it is unlikely that God’s ager would have been kindled against Moses (Exod. 4:14). Cyprian points out, “It is not difficult for God to open the mouth of a man devoted to him and to inspire constancy and confidence to in speaking in one who confesses him, who in the book of Numbers made even a female ass speak against Balaam the prophet” (42). Not only does this text fail to support Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld’s thesis, it also suggests that God can give a man a skill or talent that he previously does not possess.
The Twelve Apostles and the Deacons (Acts 6)
Another biblical situation Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld appeal to comes from Acts 6:1-7. A complaint is raised claiming that the daily bread given to the widows was being unfairly distributed. The twelve apostles opted to raise up seven wise, Spirit-filled men of good repute to distribute the bread fairly. In doing so, the apostles said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. […] But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:2, 4). This seems to suggest that the apostles remained true to their task as Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld propose, but it does not clearly insinuate that the apostles’ greatest natural strengths were prayer or the ministry of the word. But prayer and ministry of the word were not what Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld see as talents, but rather their leadership and administration. “At first, the apostles tried to lead andmanage,” argue Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld, “which is how they found themselves in this predicament in the first place” (43). However, there is little in this text to suggest that the apostles had anything to do with the distribution of bread or its administration prior to this event. In addition, the apostles were fishermen and tax collectors. Their natural strengths and talents were not likely prayer or the ministry of the word. A survey of the Gospels leaves one thinking the twelve apostles did not understand the Word well and Jesus even pointed out the natural inability of Peter, James, and John to stay awake to remain devoted to prayer (44). Some of the apostles might have been rather skilled at accounting, especially those who where previously tax collectors. Twice the twelve took part in serving bread to large numbers of people, even accounting for the collected bread afterward (45). In addition, if the apostles were acting out of a talent theme of Connectedness, Empathy, Maximer, Restorative, or Strategic all along, there is no picture of forgoing a weakness and focusing on a strength as Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld suggest is the case.
It seems more likely that those in the office of apostle were expected to fulfill their calling by remaining devoted to prayer and the ministry of the Word. In this case, it is much more about their calling than their natural strengths and talents. In addition, these strengths and talents, that is, prayer and the ministry of the Word, may have been God-given when the apostles received their calling. In the first chapter of Acts, Jesus said to the apostles, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). It may be that the power mentioned has something to do with ability, skill, talent, and strength but at a future time as Jesus said, “you will.” When Jesus gave this instruction they might not have had what they would eventually receive.
Paul, the Spiritual Gifts, and the Body (1 Corinthians 12)
Perhaps the strongest biblical support for Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld’s thesis comes from Paul’s analogy of the diverse body (46). Here Paul reasons that the Church, like a physical human body, needs many parts to function well. The various parts do not function in the same way and it would be wrong for a foot to say it does not belong because it does not function like a hand. The foot however, should be a productive foot and function well within the body. However, Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld do not use this text to demonstrate the need for strength-based functioning in leadership. Nor do they use this text to provide support that the 34 talent themes are God-given. Instead they use the text, to press on the need for a strengths-based congregation where each member works from his or her talent themes among a unified but diverse body.
Paul’s body analogy is sandwiched between a discussion of the bestowing of gifts from the Holy Spirit and the giving of offices for the Church. Strangely, Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld ignore the end caps and instead draw a distinction between one’s Spiritual gifts and his or her strengths and talents. “Identifying your talents isn’t intended to take the place of identifying your Spiritual Gifts,” write Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld, “but rather, it can be a powerful way to enhance your Gifts and calling. Spiritual Gifts help you find what the ministry is that God wants to see you accomplish; your talents are God’s way of showing you how you will accomplish it” (47). It seems however, that their statement may be more appropriate for the Church offices rather than the Spiritual gifts. For example, how is the Spiritual gift of wisdom intended to help a minister determine to which ministry he or she is called? Spiritual gifts seem to serve the church as well as to assist the individuals who are fulfilling the offices. On the other hand, Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld’s 34 talent themes seem to be more like personality traits that may be used righteously or sinfully, and for nearly any purpose, to include benefiting the Church, or not.
In drawing this distinction between the Holy Spirit’s bestowing of gifts upon the believer and the 34 talent themes, Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld seem to weaken their claim that God provides his creation one or more of 34 talent themes. They attempt to argue that the concept of talents and strengths is correct because it just “feels right.” They claim that this truth resonates deep within the individual. “It is as if our spirits react to this discovery,” Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld argue, “with a resounding, ‘Yes! This is the way it is supposed to be – this is who I was created to be’” (48). Unfortunately, this argument greatly breaks down within our society when men and women use the same argument for such things as selfishness, arrogance, violence, sexual lust, or homosexuality. Paul, who penned the same text Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld appeal to, likely believed that it felt right that he was an aggressive, violent, Pharisee. Jesus, however, greatly changed Paul, from his attitudes and desires to his personality and talents. Paul still kept some personal traits, skills, and knowledge, but he was given additional traits, skills, and power from the Holy Spirit and other traits seem to have been taken from him.
Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld ‘s claim, “You will be most successful in whatever you do by building your life around your greatest natural abilities rather than your weaknesses” is both true and false (49). Actually, true and false do not accurately describe what is going on here any better than right and wrong or correct and incorrect. After examining the work of contemporary thinkers as well as the biblical claims, Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld’s thesis appears simply to be mis-qualified. The drive to focus on, and lead from strengths in ministry has great support and is a very reasonable idea; however, Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld have incorrectly defined strengths and talents. Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld’s biblical arguments do not offer enough support to conclude that the list of 34 talent themes is a sufficient understanding of God-given strength. And they have provided no biblical support to suggest that one cannot change or grow in weaker talents. However, with an adjustment to these definitions, and a shifting of the focus, their premise serves to articulate an essential leadership quality.
The various contemporary thinkers agree, but not to the extent that one should build his or her entire life around a strength or talent, and not to the point that one cannot learn or grow in lesser strength or talent areas. Zenger’s research is convincing. Growth is more efficient when energy is expended in our areas of strength rather than weakness. However, it is clear that Clemmer is right in that a minister must deal with fetal flaws first if he or she is to have any chance of ministry success and growth. There is indeed a time when weakness needs to be addressed. Maxwell and Earley are convincing in their respective positions that there are indeed times when the God-given task will dictate the necessary God-given strengths needed to achieve such a task. Likewise, Jesus statement in Acts 1:8 suggests this to be true.
Finding the correct focus is the essential key. Had Moses trusted that God would provide him with the necessary skill and instead kept his focus on trusting God and faithfully following his calling, he would certainly have been successful, regardless of his weaknesses. The apostles kept the right focus when they installed seven men to serve bread so they could remain true to their calling of prayer and the ministry of the Word. And Paul’s teaching on the various Spiritual gifts keeps the focus on the One who empowers the worker for the work rather than on the gift (or strength, talent, or skill) itself. Although Paul does encourage his readers to further develop their gifts, his primary argument is to keep the focus right.
When we remove Winesman, Clifton, and Leisveld’s strict definition of strengths and talents and simply allow them to be identified as the gifts God has granted to his people for the work of the ministry, statements like Dr. Jeff Irog’s become more helpful. Iorg writes to the future minister: “You can also have confidence in God’s call because your abilities are suitable for the job he assigns. Most leaders are aware of their inadequacies. […] Instead of focusing on your shortcoming, focus on your strengths and the contribution you can make by answering God’s call” (50).
The essential leadership quality that leaders need to demonstrate is the ability to identify and live by the right focus. Rather than building one’s life around his or her greatest natural abilities, one will have the most ministry success if he or she centers his or her life around the right focus: God’s calling and the God-given gifts given to achieve that call.