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Are you playing to your strengths?

arcimboldo, earth, strengths
Giuseppe ARCIMBOLDO – Earth, 1566 – Oil on wood, 70 x 48.5 cm – Private collection, Austria


When Arcimboldo painted his allegories of the four elements in 1566 and in particular, of earth, intermixing dozens of animal bodies and other objects to form faces in profile, perhaps he was trying to tell us – in addition to the surrealist pleasure he afforded us – that the identification of our strengths, their particular alchemy and their knowledgeable overlapping reveals the extent to which we are unique beings. And that it is undoubtedly with this uniqueness forged in diversity that we should play with a filigree of passion.

Passion without reason…

Martha Graham once said “Great dancers are not great because of their technique, they are great because of their passion ». I agree profoundly with this sentiment. Passion enables us to transcend ourselves, to excel, to go beyond our own limits. Passion is the ultimate ingredient, one over which we have no control but which fills us with an immeasurable and necessary energy. In the right dose, it is an inexhaustible, fuel – sustainable, economic and well-balanced. Passion lets us live rather than just survive. Integrated into professional life, it resolves the conflicting worry of balance with the private aspect of life by way of harmonious integration.

Nevertheless, we are forced to accept that passion alone is not enough. The dream can conjure an unobtainable Grail. The desire to excel, to live our passion to the point of rejecting any unassociated activity can engender a utopia especially in a world where competition carries more weight than benevolence. And while some advocate that work, energy and astuteness are the means to all ends, I would add that the risk that they lead to deception is also great without the accompaniment of lucidity, honesty and a little bit of focus. Returning to the sentiment expressed by Martha Graham, if a dancer’s greatness depends on passion, this cannot be at the exclusion of technique, certainly fruits of their labour but also of their talent.

In fact, whatever the passion may be, whether it comes to the surface in during childhood or it is fortuitously revealed in adulthood, it is by resting it upon our strengths that it truly becomes possible to excel and thus to grow. These strengths make up our identity, they are an integral part of our essence and can make the difference between two individuals.

How does one discover one’s strengths?

A study by Strategy&from carried out in 2013 with the participation of hundreds of executive from diverse sectors shows that companies find it harder to identify their strengths than to understand their customers. So how can we as individuals identify our own strengths or how can the coach help a client with this search? How can we find that which allows us to incorporate passion in our personal expression of leadership? How can we awaken an area in which passion can be integrated in a realistic and effective way in regard to development? Simply put, which are the tools available to us?

Basically, there is no perfect tool or miracle recipe even though we are spoilt for choice. Actually, several strategies are possible and these can be combined in a triangular approach, echoing the old adage “Know thyself”.

  1. The mirror approach
    The simple application of the principle of introspection, it requires honesty, reflection and courage as well as and especially the intention not to allow oneself to be duped by one’s ego. Analysis of past successes and failures and how these have been overcome, echoes of our past life, it takes time to distinguish what we know from what we want to believe, to accept what our interior voice is telling us, perhaps in dissonance with what we want to understand. Alone or accompanied, extremely enriching, it can serve as a primer for a beautiful exploration while also evidencing the difficulty of us becoming judge and jury as we know full well that we will remain deaf to the things we don’t want to hear if we ourselves lead the discussion. Introspection is an enriching game if we follow the rules, rules that none but ourselves can define.
  2. Feedback, formal or not
    From a diametrically opposed point of view, we can look for our strengths in the way we are perceived by others. Here, we encounter the arsenal used habitually in the professional environment: from annual evaluations to less formal meetings, by way of the mid-year review. There is also the more structured 360° formalized by companies (or the informal self-lead approach) that gives a more complete view of the whole because – as their names suggest – this type of feedback recalls an image of eccentric subjectivity, circularity (N+1, pairs, subordinates, relationships) and forcibly different from that which the individual possesses of themself. It is exactly the subjectivity of this type of approach that makes it interesting – whether the feedback be given in a professional or private context – but at the same time reflects its intrinsic weakness as the strengths that come to light will now be the mirror image of others’ weaknesses. Furthermore, even if the feedback is delivered within the necessary climate of trust, it cannot guarantee an exhaustive assessment, no matter how educational it may be.
  3. The tests
    Test (from the latin Testis, witness) is an instrument, a controlled and calibrated tool, that allows directly address a specific question. Several tests have been developed to determine an individual’s strengths and some of these have entered into the public domain where they are free to access, such as the VIA Survey of Character Strengths developed by the University of Pennsylvania or the one developed by the Université de Kent. One is composed of 240 questions in the full version and the other only of 52 but both come in the wake of positive psychology which proposes that we all possess innate strengths but that few of us know what they are. The advantage of these tests is that they can – like feedback – send us an unexpected echo of ourselves.

In conclusion

Passion without reason and reason without passion are two of the pitfalls we should aim to avoid. If one enables us to realise ourselves, the other anchors us in reality and both provide a source of mutual nourishment. Both can be (re-) discovered, explored, revisited using various techniques. This is especially true for our strengths, often escaping the scrutiny of our conscious minds and being labelled as banal, at the same time denying that which should be imposed on us as a piece of evidence.

Also, keeping in mind we are travellers: coaching is the compass, passion indicates the direction, reason shows the way.


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