Earlier this week I led a team training on the StrengthsFinder assessment, a popular tool for discovering and naming personality strengths. The assessment is based on the work of Don Clifton, a psychologist whose ideas on leadership have proved so influential that they are now commonplace. Clifton argued that, instead of trying to shore up weaknesses, people should focus on working and leading from their strengths.
There’s more than common sense to recommend this idea. Decades of research in positive psychology (including evaluations of StrengthsFinder itself) show that when people focus on positive and healthy outcomes that are within their reach, they work and feel better. But what should Christians make of this approach to life and leadership?
I’m a fan of StrengthsFinder. It gives me language for how I function and what I can bring to my team. Clifton’s thesis holds up under scrutiny. There’s even a biblical paradigm that complements it. At the same time, the Bible provides an even richer view of how our strengths and our weaknesses work together. As Christians, we’re called to know our strengths and to expect profound experiences of weakness—and to trust God will work out his redemptive purposes through both.
The Bible Case for Strengths
Although personality strengths and spiritual gifts aren’t the same thing, biblical teachings about spiritual gifts can inform how we think about strengths-based leadership. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul writes, “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work” (12:4-6 NIV). Here we find a biblical argument for the diversity of the Christian community in gifting. God did not make everyone alike, nor does he expect everyone to serve or work in the same way. Instead, he has given particular gifts to particular people, “for the common good” (12:7 NIV). When making the same point in Romans, Paul writes, “If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach” (12:6-7 NIV). Paul implies that each person can discern and deploy their gifting, and that our diverse gifts are grounded in unity; the same God guides and empowers the process for all of us together.
Notice also what Paul does not say. Imagine if the passage had instead read like this: “If a person’s gift is prophesying, they should set an example for all to prophesy. If it is serving, they can help everyone to serve. Imitate your teachers by learning from them how to teach.” A text like that would give us a paradigm in which everyone learns how to practice every gift. Instead, Paul teaches that there are gifts certain individuals won’t have and don’t need to seek: “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers?” (1 Corinthians 12:29 NIV). Clearly not.
So far, the biblical paradigm supports Clifton’s thesis about focusing on strengths. Don’t worry about the areas where you aren’t gifted. Discern the areas where you are. Serve from strength. But what about weaknesses?
The Bible Case for Weaknesses
The unfortunate temptation of a strengths-based approach may be to undervalue weaknesses. I don’t mean that StrengthsFinder or similar coaching tools cause people to ignore their weaknesses. In fact, leaders who explain the assessment take pains to emphasize the importance of learning weaknesses. But in the strengths-based paradigm, we primarily learn our weaknesses so that we can learn how to work around them, to compensate. The Bible takes a different approach.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul gives his famous account of the mysterious “thorn in the flesh” (12:7), a metaphor we still don’t fully know how to parse. Whatever the “thorn” was, it was a kind of weakness which apparently gave Paul no small trouble. In his place of weakness, God told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (12:9 ESV). Paul concludes, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (12:9 ESV). The weakness does not prevent Christ’s power from working; it makes room for it to work in new ways.
In other words, weakness is productive. Weakness gets things done in the kingdom of God that strength does not. When we are tired and worn out, bedraggled and confused, we are in a place that God can make his power known. Knowing your weaknesses is not about how to avoid trouble; it’s about how to welcome grace.
Paul, certainly, knew how to operate in his strengths, but he had a new encounter with God when he couldn’t compensate for his weakness. We can expect the same for our life. Even as we seek to discern how God has gifted us and play to the strengths of our personality, we need to be ready for moments when we will feel inadequate. Those moments are not just liabilities to neutralize; they’re opportunities for God to complete his work in us.
- Name a weakness that you experience in your work or leadership.
- Pray, “Father, give me the grace of receiving your power in this weakness, just as it is.”
Image Credit: Adapted from M0019242 in the Wellcome Collection from Europeana, licensed under CC BY 4.0.