Home All Strengths-Based Leadership: An Interview with Author Tom Rath – Part 1

Strengths-Based Leadership: An Interview with Author Tom Rath – Part 1

written by Margaret Greenberg 14 February 2009

Margaret Greenberg, MAPP '06, is co-author of Profit from the Positive. After a 15-year career in corporate HR, she founded The Greenberg Group, an organizational effectiveness consulting practice, in 1997. Margaret specializes in coaching executives and their teams using a strengths-based approach. Full bio.

Margaret's solo articles are here and her articles with Senia Maymin are here.

Love in a Business Book? For the last two years I have written about love on February 14th – Valentine’s Day! (“Using the L Word in Business” and “Love and the Capacity to Love”).  This year, I am taking a different approach and doing a combination book review and author interview.

However, I think you will be surprised how love shows up in Tom Rath and Barry Conchie’s latest book, Strengths Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow.

I was curious how Strengths Based Leadership differed from Rath’s earlier book, StrengthsFinder 2.0.  I learned that the 34 themes of talent outlined in StrengthsFinders 2.0 are now sorted into four domains of leadership strength:  Executing, Influencing, Relationship Building, and Strategic Thinking.

Rath and Conchie bring these leadership strengths to life by interviewing four highly successful organizational leaders who each lead from a very different domain.

  • Executing:  Wendy Kopp, Founder and CEO of Teach for America
  • Influencing:  Simon Cooper, President of The Ritz Carlton
  • Relationship Building:  Mervyn Davies, Chairman of Standard Chartered Bank
  • Strategic Thinking:  Brad Anderson, CEO Best Buy

If you have already taken the StrengthsFinder assessment, you can get your own personalized Strength Based Leadership Guide by using the unique access code located at the back of Strengths Based Leadership.  If you wish to take the assessment for the first time or retake it, the same access code will allow you to do this.

What differentiates Strengths Based Leadership from other books on this topic is the new research on why people follow.  Four clear themes have emerged of what followers need and want from the most influential leaders in their lives:  trust, compassion, stability, and hope.

Margaret: What would you say are the biggest take-aways from this book?

Tom: From earlier research, we know great leaders never need to be well rounded, but great teams probably do.  The three main take-aways from this book are:

  1. First, you need to know your individual strengths.
  2. Second, you need to have the right people on your team and understand the strengths of the people around you.
  3. And third, make sure you’re meeting your followers’ needs, which is the new published research in the book – what followers need in the first place.

Margaret: In the book you write, “You’re a leader of an organization if others follow.”  Typically when we study leadership, we interview leaders to get their opinions on what they do.  Rarely do we solicit the opinions of followers like you did in this book.  Tell me more.

Tom: We often glaze over the fact that leaders need followers, and the person who has the best vantage point to judge if a leader makes a difference or not is the individual who is following.  We asked 20,000 people from around the world to think of a leader that had the most impact in their life.  Then in a very open-ended way and in their own words, we asked them why they follow.  We then sorted and coded their responses.

Margaret: And their responses fell into four basic needs of followers – trust, compassion, stability, and hope.  What was the most surprising finding?

Tom: I was surprised by what wasn’t at the top of the list.  We didn’t see followers talking about vision directly, clarity, or purpose.  The irony is that is what the literature talks about most of the time.  Leaders do need to think about where the company is going strategically, but there are basic things they need to do on a regular basis to maintain relationships.

Margaret: What else surprised you?

Tom: The other finding we didn’t spend much time on in book is the median duration of the relationship between a follower and the person that had the most impact on their daily life.  It was ten years.  That kind of leadership takes place within the context of a really powerful relationship.  Leaders need to keep in mind that having that kind influence and building that kind of relationship with 5 or 500 takes a lot of time and patience.

Margaret: What about the “L” word — love?  Did people use that word when describing the leader that had the most impact on them?

Valentine's Day

Tom: People did use the word love quite frequently, along with caring and compassion when talking about great local leaders like mentors, managers, spouses, parents, and teachers.   The word speaks to just how close these relationships are.  When we asked about organizational and global leaders that had the most impact, people used words like caring and compassion.  I’ve learned that the word love is a lightning rod in organizations.  The minute you use that word it creeps people out.  The way love manifests itself in business specifically is in managers who care. Gallup has collected research on the topic of caring managers.  We’ve asked 15 million people:  Does your manager care about you as a person?  Not only do the very best managers have employees who say they care, but the managers themselves see the development of their people as being an end in itself, versus a means unto itself.

Margaret Greenberg and Tom RathAuthor’s Personal Note:  Tom and I were classmates in the inaugural class of the University of Pennsylvania’s Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) back in 2006.  Look for Part 2 of this interview on March 14.

Editor’s note: Both parts of the Tom Rath interview appear in the Leadership chapter of the Positive Psychology News book, Character Strengths Matter.




Rath, T. & Conchie, B. (2009). Strengths-Based Leadership. New York: Gallup Press.

Tom has also written other important books for people interested in strengths and love:

Rath, T. (2004). How Full Is Your Bucket? Positive Strategies for Work and Life New York: Gallup Press.

Rath, T. (2007). StrengthsFinder 2.0: A New and Upgraded Edition of the Online Test from Gallup’s Now, Discover Your Strengths. New York: Gallup Press.

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Christine Duvivier 15 February 2009 - 10:12 am

Margaret, Thank you for a fascinating interview with Tom! Your points on “caring” vs. “love” in the workplace — and on the fact that leaders do not need to be well-rounded, but teams do– contribute greatly to the topic of leadership.

Thanks for sharing with all of us and I look forward to part 2.

Barry Elias 15 February 2009 - 10:12 am

February 15, 2009

Dear Ms. Greenberg:

Thank you very much for this insightful article regarding the book by Mssrs. Tom Rath and Barry Conchie.

Mr. Rath states,”We didn’t see followers talking about vision directly, clarity, or purpose.”

I would expect this empirical result. It seems followers, through compassion from the leader, develop a feeling of trust and stability, which inspires hope and growth.

As the follower strengthens (i.e., emotional, psychosocial, cognitive), he/she is better prepared to optimize their own potential, and possibly become the next leader.

Best wishes,
Barry Elias

Margaret 15 February 2009 - 11:27 am

Christine, thank you for your thoughtful comments. Tom brought such depth to our MAPP class discussions, especially on the topic of strengths. The same goes for this interview — I realized I had so much info after interviewing Tom that I couldn’t possibly fit it into the standard length of a PPND article! Look for Part II next month.

Christine, I want you to know that I so admire the work you do in bringing PP to education & parenting. Great parents & teachers play an enormous leadership role in the life of so many young people. Much love, Margaret

Margaret 15 February 2009 - 11:32 am

Barry, thank you for YOUR INSIGHTFUL comments! I love how you see compassion being the foundation from which trust, stability,and hope are realized. Warm regards, Margaret

Senia 15 February 2009 - 12:02 pm

I love this open-ended interview. I love hearing what surprised Tom as the book writer. This is really lively and alive – thank you! And how surprising that one of the main concepts is caring and love – not so much surprising as interesting that it got picked up clearly and that people verbalized it. Thank you!


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