In the late 1990s, psychological research practitioners made a formal rallying cry to the American Psychological Association to push positive psychology research into the frontier of human strengths. Psychological research, as it developed over the 19th and early 20th centuries, focused on psychotic behaviors – their causes and how to fix them. As the authors of this paper point out, a focus on how to repair damaged psyches is critically important to society but it does not help us understand how psychologically healthy people can reach their highest potential. To meet this need, the discipline of positive psychology was seeded in the 1970s and 1980s with the writings and research of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Carol Ryff, among others. Since then, it’s blossomed as psychologists have developed, honed, and tested theories through research with real people to explore inquiries surrounding the ultimate question of what makes a human being thrive.
One very important vein of this research to life coaching is strengths-based development and research. Since Seligman’s call to the APA, empirical research on the effects of emphasizing strengths in leadership and business sectors has flourished. The theoretical rationale is that understanding and cultivating one’s strengths results in higher functioning and productivity than spending time and energy on improving one’s weaknesses.
The implications of strengths based development for life coaching are huge. The authors attest that the use of strengths assessments has abounded across business sectors. Life coaches have the potential to support executives in becoming more effective leaders and producers by helping them identify and cultivate their strengths. But, the authors also point out that there’s a gap in the research – a lack of empirical understanding for how coaching specifically can effectively tap into and foster leaders’ strengths over time. The purpose of their study was to begin to fill in this gap.
The central question. How does a strengths-based approach to coaching cultivate strong leaders? The authors identify a gap in the research about the effects that long-term strengths-based coaching can have on leadership development. The key here is the how. With so many strengths assessments out there, how are coaches implementing coaching strategies that help leaders identify their strengths and outline action plans for building on them?
Six expert coaches. To answer this question, the authors looked to the practitioners. They identified six executive life coaches from the United States and United Kingdom, each with a proven track record of working long-term with business leaders to improve their performances with strengths-based coaching methods. Each coach had 10 to 40 years experience specifically using strengths-based approaches to leadership, meaning some of them have been using strengths in coaching since long before it was identified as a research priority for positive psychology.
Qualitative interviews. Rather than using a quantitative approach, the authors went deep. They used lengthy, conversation-based qualitative interviews with the six coaches to draw out their methods and look for overlapping themes that may be generalizable to the field as a whole.
Four resulting themes. The rigorous data analysis revealed four main themes that emerged as coaching technique patterns across individual interviews regardless of the strengths assessment tools the coaches used.
“Strengths Development is Intrinsically Motivating and Energizing” (p. 23). This theme affirms the theoretical foundation for skills based leadership development as a practice – that you stand to grow a lot more when you cultivate what you’re good at than focus on what you aren’t. Strengths development marries talent or tendency with hard work and skill development. The key is energy – when leaders pursue their strengths they generate their own energy to continue the hard work. They get fed by the feedback mechanisms – even when feedback identifies areas for improvement, the energy is there to work for it. The coaches all affirmed that motivation for their clients is intimately tied to pursuing their strengths. In fact, guiding clients in looking for what motivates them can be a way to actually identify their strengths. Although they all used different strengths assessments, the coaches all used them as a tool for looking at what energizes their clients on the hunt for their strengths. The authors state, “Literature and consideration for practice #1: Find what energizes you,” (p. 24, emphasis mine).
“Strengths Develop Through Relationships” (p. 24). This theme supports the notion that it takes a village. Although coaches used different assessment tools with their clients, they reported one of the main utilities of any tool being when clients used it to facilitate discussions about themselves with their closest friends, family, and work colleagues. This stimulated these close people to help their clients see themselves more clearly through someone else’s eyes via the structure of the assessment tool. Sometimes those closest to you on the outside can help you see much better what’s inside. It’s a way that we can be objective, to observe ourselves impartially and acceptingly, to understand our nature and thus our strengths.
“Expert Strengths Work Does Not Ignore a Leader’s Blind Spots or Shadow Side” (p. 27). This theme identifies a critical nuance: while strengths-based work does focus on cultivating clients’ talents rather than strengthening their weaknesses, it does not ignore or disregard those weaknesses. On the contrary, the expert coaches reported that it’s critical to use strengths-based work to become more aware of those weaknesses, to be able to anticipate when they may become limiting and develop systems for managing them. Fascinatingly, the expert coaches also testified that at first glance a strength can actually seem like a weakness and it’s just a matter of shifting our perspective on that trait and when you use it. It’s actually dangerous, from this lens, to ignore weaknesses, because we could completely miss something fundamental to someone’s greatest potential.
“Helping Leaders Develop Hinges on a Coach’s Attitudes About His or Her Own Development” (p. 30). It’s hard to pull any one of these four themes out as the single most important, but if we had to this may be the one. The expert coaches in this research all were wholly committed to their own authentic self-development. Not only did they report how important this was to their successes in coaching, they actively demonstrated it in the way they talked about themselves – their journeys as coaches, their own self-development in learning and growing their strengths. The coaches actively engaged in peer-to-peer exchanges with other coaches, and demonstrated self-acceptance, curiosity, and honesty about their own internal selves. All of the coaches interviewed emphasized this type of self-awareness and commitment to development as essential to their efficacy as strengths-based coaches. In the words of one of the coaches interviewed, “The more self-awareness you have, the better you can coach.”
Strengths-based development taps into Flow. The authors cite the following definition from Linley (2008) as the most “encompassing” definition of strengths: “a preexisting capacity for a particular way of behaving, thinking, or feeling that is authentic and energizing to the user, and enables optimal functioning, development, and performance,” (p. 21, emphasis mine). The first theme of the research findings, “Strengths Development is Intrinsically Motivating and Energizing,” demonstrates the application of this concept to strengths coaching. The term “energizing” here is key – it alludes to the idea that one’s strengths-based behavior, thought pattern, or emotional state is self-sustaining – it generates its own energy. This is one of the cornerstones of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow: when someone is in a flow state, that means whatever they are doing is intrinsically rewarding, so they keep doing it. In other words, it is energizing. It makes intuitive sense that for someone to be exercising their strengths as a leader, they are also cultivating a self-reinforcing state of flow. They’re doing something that gives them joy.
A coach’s self-awareness matters. Whether you are a seasoned professional with three thousand hours of coaching under your belt, you are just starting out in a training program, or if you are even just thinking about starting, your commitment to your own development matters. This is the final theme of the results, and it might be the most important because it can be easy to overlook. Self-awareness. It affects how you show up, how you listen, and what you focus on. As coaches, it’s our mission to help our clients learn how to understand and guide themselves. So, here’s where the personal work comes in – we have to do that work too, for ourselves, because it is the fundamental basis from which we coach authentically. Here’s what the authors write about the expert coaches’ emphasis on this point: “The expert coaches all stressed the importance of self awareness; they are all willing to share a narrative of their own strengths experiences and stories. They are not only lifelong learners; a fundamental part of that learning is internal learning about oneself,” (p. 32, emphasis mine.)
Strengths aren’t always obvious. Sometimes they can elude us and even masquerade as weaknesses. Strengths-based development in life coaching isn’t as easy as sitting down with our clients and mapping out, here’s what you’re good at, here’s what you’re not, and getting to work. Effective strength’s based coaching is fundamentally exploratory and ever changing. It is looking deeply at what our clients’ talents seem to be and where their weaknesses lie, and digging over long periods of time. One of the most important takeaways of this research is not to ignore the weaknesses that come up – they may be overshadowing something fundamentally magnificent that we will totally miss if we don’t look harder.
The research team used a “multiple case study method”. They identified coaches from both the UK and US that have either won awards for their coaching accolades or written books on the application of strengths approaches to leadership development coaching. In order to isolate patterns with coaching approaches they intentionally included coaches that actually used different strengths-based assessment tools with their clients. The coaching matters, not necessarily the tool.
Five researchers conducted interviews and coded data. All were trained in semi-structured interview methods specific to this project and were already experienced interviewers. The researchers independently coded the interviews and their definitions of codes were combined into a single document which they reviewed together to agree on the final codes for analysis.
The life coaches who were interviewed reviewed the data and final report. This is a data validation method that qualitative researchers use widely in the absence of numbers that quantify patterns. To validate narrative patterns, the interview participants are asked to review their interview transcript and read and comment on the final research report. The six life coaches affirmed the accuracy of the raw interview data, the findings, and the final report narrative.
Linley, A. (2008). Average to A+: Realising strengths in yourself and others. Coventry: CAPP Press.
Welch, D., Grossaint, K., Reid, K., & Walker, C. (2014). Strengths-Based Leadership Development: Insights from Expert Coaches. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 66(1), 20 – 37.