How I use CliftonStrenghts as a leader

Seeing both the bright and dark side to strengths.

July 31, 2023
Rocks balancing

To lead is to navigate uncertainty. Assessments provide models for understanding and organizing this uncertainty. CliftonStrengths delivers a model to better understand the complexity of talents and strengths in ourselves and others.

I've used CliftonStrengths for about 15 years with numerous individuals and teams. I really love the tool. I like how it helps us see what is possible in ourselves and others.

Your Strengths Have AntiPatterns

Talent vs. strength.

A quick note on terms. When you take the assessment, you receive an ordered list of your top 5 talent themes. Understanding these allows you to design a path for growth, developing them into strengths.

For simplicity, I'm not going to differentiate between talents and strengths in this post. I'll just use the term strengths.

At the core of strengths psychology is the idea that we will see a more significant benefit by leveraging our strengths than improving our weaknesses

My top 5

Before diving into how I use CliftonStrengths, I wanted to share my results. This will help you understand a little of where I'm coming from and better understand how I'm applying the tool.

My top 5 strengths

  1. Achiever
  2. Learner
  3. Strategic
  4. Competition
  5. Belief

The assessment only provides your top 5 strengths, though you can pay more to see the whole list. This allows you to focus on these top five rather than attempt leveraging ten or fifteen at a time.

There are many great exercises to facilitate, from helping individuals chart a path for growth to seeing teams gain empathy and understanding. In this post, I want to highlight two themes I would come back to time and time again with teams.

Your best contribution

At the core of strengths psychology is the idea that we will see a more significant benefit by leveraging our strengths than improving our weaknesses. I help people discover how they have been created, recognizing their design and how it shapes them.

People are a unique combination of aptitudes, backgrounds and experiences. Understanding your strengths allows you to see what is and could be possible. Recognizing what you and others on your team bring will enable you to identify your best contribution.

Writing out your combination

I'll take the team through some exercises to understand how particular strengths combine to enhance each other or create tension. This exercise works well to understand how these strengths work both within a person and a team.

Here is an example of how my talents combine to propel me forward.

  • belief + strategic: I plan from my values, allowing these values to be fundamental in my setting direction.
  • strategic + achiever: If my plans and strategies have clear, measurable outcomes, I will be more motivated to reach them.
  • learner + strategic: Learning is fun and enables me to discern the big picture as well as the details. It also allows me to apply my knowledge across specialties.

You will start to see a more nuanced picture of how these strengths are lived out together. The next exercise takes all of the top five and writes them together as a single strengths bio. After writing it out, I encourage them to see if they can come up with a name that captures their combination of strengths.

Here's my strengths bio as an example...
"My beliefs enable me to see clearly what I value and hope to be in the future. I strategically look at this end and plot a course from where I am in that direction. As a learner, I enjoy finding my way through new things on this journey. My talents of competition, achiever and belief propel me toward this future destination."

I titled this combination the "possibilities explorer." One time I added in the rest of my top 10 strengths to include focus, futuristic, analytical, restorative and ideation. This would be too many to try to focus on at once but helped me write a bio that I called the "solutions architect." This exercise has been very instructive for me as I've considered what kind of roles or projects I want to take on.

Learn to recognize behaviors when you're over-leveraging your strengths to the point that they become liabilities. And discover the path back to health.

Over-leveraging your strengths

Understanding your strengths provides insight for individuals and teams. This new understanding can be a great motivator and catalyst for growth. There is also a dark side to each strength when it's lived out in an unhealthy way.

Stress or fear quickly causes people to act like they're fighting for survival. We can begin to over-leverage our strengths. Command becomes domineering. Strategic becomes control; woo becomes manipulation. Input becomes inaction.

When we live or lead in isolation, we are at a much greater risk of over-leveraging our strengths.

I led and coached teams working abroad for many years, living and interacting in a new language and culture. This kind of environment creates a lot of stress. Understanding their strengths also allowed them to see where they will likely turn when they feel unsafe or uncertain.

The first time I went through this exercise, I joked, "this feels more like a vice-finder than a strengths-finder." Seeing the dark side of your strengths can cause some people to feel shame. This isn't the point of this exercise. Instead, the goal is honest awareness of what can happen when looking to our strengths to make life work.

Most people can identify times where they've over-leveraged their strengths in an unhealthy way. Grace and forgiveness are needed for healing and restoration. Awareness and community are necessary for living in a new and healthy way. When those you're leading and those you're alongside in the journey understand both the bright side and the dark side of your strengths, they can speak into you like. Sometimes it will be a word of encouragement. Other times it may be caution or correction. When we live or lead in isolation, we are at a much greater risk of over-leveraging our strengths.

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Better together

And this leads to the most significant insight that I hope teams have when we work through their strengths. We are better together. The temptation is to see my strengths as all I need.  I know I've struggled with this. But we need each other. At this point, I will facilitate the team working together to write their combined team bio. This is a fun and beautiful process when the team can recognize how they can serve and bring out the best in one another.

I hope you find these exercises helpful for both yourself and your team.

Action Plan

Frequently Asked Questions


So do I totally ignore my weaknesses and just focus on my strengths?

Strengths-based growth doesn’t encourage you to ignore your weaknesses but not to spend too much time trying to turn them into strengths. Instead, you may need to find team members or systems to fill in your gaps.

Learn more about how StrengthsFind influences your leadership.

There are strengths I think I have; why didn’t they didn’t show up in my top 5?

For some people, their strengths ranked 5, 6 or 7 are almost even. You could also be misattributing a skill or behavior to a specific strength.

Learn more about how StrengthsFind influences your leadership.

Should I pay to see all 34 strengths?

Seeing your other 29 strengths can help give you a fuller picture. But initially, someone should focus on further developing those top 5 strengths rather than trying to give attention across the list. Once you have a good grasp on what it looks like to lead from your top 5, it can be helpful to explore the rest of the list.

Learn more about how StrengthsFind influences your leadership.

What’s the difference between a talent and a strength?

A talent is your natural way of thinking or behaving. A strength is a talent developed over time through knowledge, skills and practice.

Learn more about how StrengthsFinder influences your leadership.

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