The boys were sitting quietly around the fire with no idea what was coming next. All they knew was the final stage of their ‘passage to manhood’ was about to begin.
Nearby I was helping their fathers prepare for this important event.
“You’re about to do something that will change your son’s life forever,” I began. “But first you’ve got to make a promise: stop trying to fix him.”
They looked puzzled.
“You may not realise you try to fix your kids,” I continued. “But as parents we focus too much on their weaknesses. It’s part of our culture. Just ask my daughter. She had to tell me several times to stop!”
A few smiled.
“The world is telling our boys they are inadequate,” I said. “They are bombarded with messages demanding perfection for how they should look, dress, speak, feel and perform. Who they are right now seems never to be enough. Many feel anxious about the future and wonder how will they succeed in life.
“But your boys don’t need fixing because there’s nothing wrong with them! From now on your job as a father is to focus your attention on everything that works about your son. He’s had thirteen years to develop into the person he is today. He has unique strengths and talents. There’s never been anyone like him and there never will be.
“You may not see his strengths, however, if they differ from yours. For example, you could be ultra-competitive in sport and business whilst he puts all his attention on caring for others or reflecting about the future.
“You also may be pushing him to become something he is not. Ask yourself if your aspirations for him match what he naturally loves doing.
“Where is your son at his best as a human being? When does he most shine in life? What does he love to do? In a few minutes, you’re going to tell him in front of everyone. Finally, each boy’s strengths should also be acknowledged by another man in addition to his dad.”
Soon the men returned to the fire and sat around their sons in silence. A throne-like chair bedecked with branches was at one end. I motioned for the first lad to take his place.
“I call on this boy’s father and his advocate to step forward,” I announced. “Tell us who he is.”
His father stood beside the throne and began speaking, unable to hold back the tears.
“My son’s greatest strength is his kindness. He is the most caring, thoughtful person I know. Animals, children, his brother and sister, his friends, his mum, his grandparents, it doesn’t matter. No one is left out.”
A few boys turned their heads, finding the intimacy too much. The others stared in astonishment. The men were wiping their eyes.
Another man stepped forward and stood on the other side of the throne.
“The strength I see in this boy,” he announced. “Is his strong presence in front of people. He tells wonderful stories that are both moving and funny.”
The boy seemed to grow in front of our eyes, a look of pure joy on his face. For a moment, he was a prince, his father a king and the other man a lord. These men had named his very essence in front of the important people in his life, etching it into the core of his being.
One after the other all fifteen boys took the throne to be anointed into their new identities by their dads and other men. It was a beautiful, intimate moment.
I was delighted for them yet felt a note of sadness creeping in. My father was proud of my performance at school and sport, which felt good, but he couldn’t help me uncover the strengths and talents behind my success.
His main interest was for me to become an investment banker. It was comforting as a young man to have my future mapped out but it kept me in a vacuum, unaware of who I was and where I could best direct my energy, except to fulfil his dreams for me.
Now, forty years later I bring my strengths to leadership consulting and mentoring. I’ve worked with hundreds of leaders, many of them senior people. When we first meet, most are unaware of their strengths, or even why it’s important to understand who they are when at their best. Like me, their Dads probably never told them.
“I used to think, ‘If I’m good at something, I’m good at it,’” one client recently told me. “’What else do I need to know?’”
Few have been taught to develop their strengths as the way to succeed and flourish. Instead they get stuck grinding out results, putting their attention on fixing their weaknesses.
When these leaders identify their strengths*, however, the effects can be transformational. A CEO of a not-for-profit recently told me, “Now I’m consciously thinking about my strengths. When I come up against a challenge, I think of ways I can use my strengths to address it. Things come to mind I would not have thought of otherwise.”
A CEO of a tech start-up said to me, “I’m now aware how weighted my strengths are to thinking strategically. It’s a relief to know I can focus on strategy and not worry about execution. I have some great people who do that way better than me.”
My wife Deborah, a strengths coach at The Values Partnership, says, “Once you discover your strengths it is important to ‘own’ them. This means accepting who you are and are not.”
That’s hard for people who believe they need to be good at everything. But the real joy of owning your strengths is getting to focus on what you most love to do.
“It took a while for me to own my Command strength,” said the tech CEO. “I used to get angry and later felt ashamed for losing control. Now I know there’s nothing wrong with me. I redirect the powerful energy of Command to take charge in ways that reassure people and give them confidence.”
The head of the not-for-profit added, “I’ve had to learn how to deal with people’s reactions to my strength of generating new ideas. Now I frame my thinking in ways people can hear it.”
If you want to spend your time and energy doing what you love my encouragement is to understand who you are at your best by getting to know your strengths.
I also encourage you to help the young people in your life identify their strengths. Tell them how they contribute to the world. Encourage them to focus on what they’re good at. You will leave a legacy of confident leaders who know who they are.
*The best strengths assessment I know is Gallup's Strengthsfinder.
This article also appears in LinkedIn. If you enjoyed it the next describes the journey of how to develop your strengths as a leader.
Please get in touch with Deborah firstname.lastname@example.org or Miles email@example.com at The Values Partnership to find out more about developing your strengths as a leader.