Doubling Your Strengths?


September 23, 2008

by Marshall Goldsmith

Do you believe – as most of us have been led to – that you have strengths and weaknesses? Psychologist Tommy Thomas believes something quite different: that people have only strengths. He believes that once you get hold of the idea that your weaknesses are actually strengths, you’ll have twice as many personal strengths – ones not often recognized – to draw on.

Tommy was in my neck of the woods recently to give a speech to a group of CEOs, and we met at my house for a conversation about strengths. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation:

MG: Can you explain how you define a strength?

TT: A strength is a conceptual way to reduce a lot of information into a single idea. We use these ideas to identify specific related aspects of a person’s ability to think, feel, and behave.

We are taught early on that those things that we are not good at are “weaknesses” and should be disguised and ignored. However, the message is confusing. It says: To be successful, we need only half of our selves – our strengths. By redefining the concept of strengths, I have created a framework that describes all of the ways that a person can think, feel, and behave as strengths.

How is it that we don’t have weaknesses?

We are so used to thinking in a positive-negative framework, which is a self-limiting way of thinking. So, it’s almost natural that when we think about a strength we have, we immediately start looking for a negative, or a weakness. For example, if you see yourself in positive terms as outgoing and gregarious, you might think negatively about yourself when you are quiet and less expressive. I want you to see yourself not in terms of strengths and weaknesses but in terms of opposite strengths.

How can executives be more successful by seeing themselves in terms of opposite strengths?

An all-too-common assumption that executive coaches make is that executives must reinforce their strengths – by doing – and avoid their weaknesses – by delegating. This way of thinking, however, rejects half of the executive’s natural strengths. What people consider weaknesses are actually strengths they don’t want to use, don’t like to use, or don’t see the value in using.

It’s these lesser-valued strengths that actually sustain the success that comes from what people consider to be their only strengths – those things that come easily to them, that they like to do, or that they value. By re-defining all the ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving as strengths rather than labeling some of them as weaknesses, executives can feel comfortable drawing on all of their internal resources.

Give me an example of a strength and its opposite one and how an executive uses them.

One of the six strengths that people have is thinking – the ability to rationally analyze. The opposite strength of thinking is what I call risking, the ability to move into action. An executive uses her thinking strength to create strategy and craft options. If she ignores her risking strength, she would find it difficult to take any action. She would prefer to analyze and reanalyze. She would become paralyzed into doing nothing, which could be disastrous.

One CEO I worked with had been very successful using his thinking strength. When his company came into a windfall of cash some years ago, he analyzed the best ways to invest it. But he did that for two years without making a single investment! I coached him to use his risking strength to take action. He finally started making investments based on the best information he had as a result of his thinking strength.

How can your idea of strengths help executives be more successful?

Marshall, in your book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, you identify 20 habits that people must break in order to get into the executive suite. As I see it, 17 of those 20 habits stem from the exclusive use of one specific strength while ignoring the opposite strength.

That’s intriguing. Can you explain?

The strength is independent risking – the ability to rely on yourself to take action, to be independent. Executives are sometimes led to believe that the opposite strength, dependent risking, or the ability to form relationships and delegate responsibility, is a weakness, so they shy away from it. When they focus only on their independent risking strength and ignore their dependent risking strength, they develop most of the habits that you wisely advise people to break.

For example, your habit No. 11 is “claiming credit that we don’t deserve.” Executives do this when they are stuck on their own importance, so they don’t pay enough attention to others and their relationships. By shifting their attention to the opposite strength of focusing on their relationships with other people, CEOs enhance their own success.

How can you recognize when you’re overusing one strength?

Pain. Simple as that. Pain is a great internal mechanism that tells us that something is wrong. And pain can come in many forms: not being taken seriously, being fired, being passed over for promotion, or losing an important account.

Many times we develop blind spots because we’ve felt positive about using a strength. It’s like being an ice hockey player who never skates backward. He’s best at skating forward but has trouble skating backward, so he never does. As he spends more time on the bench, he’ll notice other players skating both ways and realize that developing more skills will give him a chance to move to the next level of play.

How can people discover how they might tend to overuse one of their strengths?

Hundreds of executives have taken my Opposite Strengths Inventory to learn which strengths they use naturally and which strengths are hidden gems. I invite your readers to e-mail me for instructions on how to complete the online inventory and get a complimentary report explaining the results.

Thank you! I love giving my readers the opportunity to try new things! I am going to do it myself. How can we reach you?

I can be reached at or by e-mail at