Home All Strengths-Based Leadership: An Interview with Author Tom Rath – Part 2

Strengths-Based Leadership: An Interview with Author Tom Rath – Part 2

written by Margaret Greenberg 14 March 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.

Tom Rath Leadership Happiness

Tom Rath

Barry Conchie Leadership Happiness

Barry Conchie

Following is Part Two of an interview I conducted last month with best-selling author Tom Rath on his latest book, Strengths Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow with Barry Conchie.   (Part I here).  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.

Margaret: To illustrate the four leadership domains (Executing, Influencing, Relationship Building, and Strategic Thinking) you interviewed four highly successful organizational leaders.  Can you tell our readers more about that?

Wendy Kopp

Wendy Kopp

Tom: They’re people that I have admired for a long time and they were just night and day different in the way they interacted with people and built their organizations. From the minute I sat down with Wendy Kopp (Founder and CEO of Teach for America) she oozed the Achiever theme. She guided me through how she methodically worked on her to-do list from day, to week, to month, to year until she had built that organization essentially from scratch.  Within 12 months of writing her thesis she was on the front page of the New York Times, recruited 500 teachers in California, and raised over $2.5 million.  I’m still blown away by that.


And Brad Anderson (CEO of Best Buy) is a very different guy.  He’s a big-picture thinker.  He’s all about ‘Where are we going to be in 10 years?’ and, ‘What do we need for the future?’

But the interview that was really striking for me was Mervyn Davies (Chairman of Standard Chartered Bank). When you think of a chairman of a large global bank in the UK you don’t think of a guy that leads with relationships. He talked about how the well-being of 70,000 families is depending on the company. I interviewed some of his direct reports and they described how Mervyn was there for them when they had a real personal challenge.  To build a global bank like that and do it all through a pretty heavy relationship orientation was really neat to see.

Margaret:  Did you find any common strengths among leaders?

Tom: No. That’s been one of the big takeaways for me.  We don’t see much of any consistency when we look at the most successful leaders.  I’ve yet to see two that have a very similar profile in terms of their top 5 strengths. In the general US database we see more themes of Learner, Relator, and Achiever, but not necessarily among leaders.

Margaret:  One question I am frequently asked by leaders I work with is how can we get employees to think beyond their department, beyond their function, and collaborate more with other areas in order to better execute and get the work done? How would you answer that question?

Strengths Based Leadership Book CoverTom: It might sound somewhat elementary, but just do some basic things to ensure people are talking.  I know this doesn’t happen anywhere near as much as it should, but just sit down, ideally face-to-face, and get to know the people that you’re going to be interfacing with on a regular basis. Spend a little bit of time talking about their strengths so they know what they each can contribute is important. I’m amazed at how often teams are formed, and that just doesn’t take place at all. Companies should see the value in doing that, if for no other reason than for the sake of speed. For example, I have four or five close relationships here at work. I can communicate something to them, or they can communicate to me, in 10 or 15 seconds versus 10 or 15 minutes if I didn’t have that close relationship.

Margaret:  Now that you’ve sorted the 34 themes of talent into the four leadership domains it would be interesting to look at a team’s make-up and see if they have any of the Relationship Building strengths.  Maybe that plays into how collaborative people will be?

Tom: It’s a great point. A lot of the top leadership teams we’ve worked with have been most thin in the area of Relationship Building. I know that I thought about that a lot a couple of years ago with my own team.  I have someone on my team who is ten times better than I ever will be at keeping us cohesive and building relationships. So I said to her explicitly ‘I may be the one managing the team, but I know you’re better at doing this’. And today she’s done so much to help us build a better environment with even a broader group of people.

Margaret:  Now that you’ve published Strengths Based Leadership, what are you working on?

Tom:  We’re doing a lot of work trying to connect how engaged employees are on the job and when people have a chance to use their strengths, how that relates to outcomes that are more about one’s own physical health.  We have a few experiments underway where we’ve been looking at when people become more engaged in their jobs, what happens to their total cholesterol levels, the tri-glyceride in their bloodstream, and their cortisol or stress hormone levels.  As much as productivity, profitability, customer scores, and turnover are important to organizations, and I’d call those hard or concrete metrics for companies, I think that our physical health is one means to look at pretty concrete outcomes for individuals.

Margaret: And for the company it would translate into healthcare costs which continue to be one of the largest expenses for most companies.

Tom: I think that’s a big part of it.  We’re trying to figure out exactly how much of the variance of healthcare costs that individual engagement accounts for.  A lot of good companies like Standard Chartered, who I mentioned earlier, they’ll get to the point where they care about it for all the right reasons and the rest of the companies will get there for no other reason than they’ll see the reduction in healthcare costs.  The more we dive into the research we’re collecting, it might turn out that a person’s manager is a better predictor of their overall health than the quality of their physician.

Margaret:  Many people are surprised when I tell them that your grandfather, Donald Clifton, wrote Now, Discover Your Strengths. What do you think your grandfather would have to say about your latest book?

Tom: Right before he passed away he sent an e-mail summarizing some of his best thoughts on the topic of leadership.  He typed a long note describing some of his key findings and that note was probably the best outline and skeleton that served to guide us as we were working on this book.   He had done so much research over the years and had a lot of good thoughts that just never quite made it to publication in his lifetime.  I’m sure he’d be glad to see the continuation of some of that work and how much we’ve been able to help more people benefit from his work.

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. Part I of this interview is here.

Editor’s note: Both parts of this interview are included 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.


Teach for America, publicradio.org

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WJ 14 March 2009 - 4:15 pm


The comment “We don’t see much of any consistency when we look at the most successful leaders. I’ve yet to see two that have a very similar profile in terms of their top 5 strengths” is quite profound.

If there is no profile, then can you teach leadership skills. Late last year a client asked me to run a workshop on Resilient Leadership. The starting point as usual was to have a look at the research databases – what surprised me was the number of leadership theories that had never been substantiated by research – in other words they were just an opinion.

In the workshop I ran a simple exercise asking people to describe the characteristics of leaders – and guess what – these characteristics aligned with participants values and belief. In other words they all believed that they would all make effective leaders – hard to believe.

Consequently I have chosen not to run leadership courses until there is some good evidence about effective leadership.

Margaret 15 March 2009 - 2:21 pm

Thank WJ for sharing your experience. “Teaching” leadership from a set of competencies that we’re all supposed to possess seems ludicrous to me (see an earlier article I wrote on “Creating a Bridge Between Competencies & Strengths” https://positivepsychologynews.com/news/margaret-greenberg/20070314158). Instead I like to think of teaching leadership through a self-discovery process (not “telling” people they need to do this or that), beginning with uncovering our natural talents/strengths.

As Tom said in Part I of the interview most leadership books talk about a leader needing a vision, however, followers did not mention this quality at all and instead said they needed trust, compassion, stability and hope from their leaders. Teaching leadership isn’t just about what leaders need to DO and KNOW. It’s also about who they need to BE.

The exercise you did is a great place to start on the journey of self-discovery. I will go out on a limb and disagree with your “hard to believe”. Most of us do play leadership roles in our lives – if not at work, then in our families and communities. Maybe we all can be effective leaders IF we lead with our strengths. Tom, would you like to weight in?

WJ 15 March 2009 - 4:03 pm

Margaret – I guess like everything it boils down to definitions of leadership. The businesses I work with tend to be focused on sustainable results. Hence from a businesses perspective leadership has to be related to results. But who knows?

I have to admit that I tend to use a personality profile (broken down to the facet level) in my work as I find it provides people with more insights than the VIA or strengths finder – again that’s just my experience.

Margaret 15 March 2009 - 7:32 pm

WJ – yes I use a number of different assessments (e.g. – Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument — again no “best” profile for a leader; and of course 360 assessments so the person can have a more complete view of his/her leadership), too. And yes, business is about getting results and those that I consult to (primarily fiancial services) are facing difficult times. Strong leadership is required more than ever before. The research study I conducted back in 2006 as part of the UPenn program (“Optimistic Managers & Their Impact on Productivity & Employee Engagement in a Technology Organization” avaiable @UPenn’s Scholary Commons — http://repository.upenn.edu/mapp_capstone/3)showed just how much leadership behaviors (specifically, providing frequent recognition and encouragement, focusing on ee strengths, & maintaining a positive perspective when things go awry) can impact productivity and ultimately the bottom line.

Margaret 15 March 2009 - 7:52 pm

Dear Readers – I’m off to Costa Rica in the a.m. and will reply to your comments upon my return on the 29th. Adios!

Marie-Josee Salvas 16 March 2009 - 1:26 pm


I am thoroughly interested in the research Tom is actually conducting on health, health care costs and engagement. This is my favorite thing! Very interesting is the hypothesis that a person’s manager is a better predictor of their overall health than the quality of their physician. I can’t wait to read whether evidence shows that this is the case or not! Will you keep us updated? (I know this is a long-term contract, but I figured I’d make the request just the same!).




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