As an expert practitioner, one of those ‘great people managers’ that Gallup studied, interviewed and researched, I can no longer remain quiet on this important subject.

StrengthsFinder does NOT identify people’s strengths. It only, in Gallup’s own words, helps people identify their ‘talent themes’. Which Gallup admits is only 1/3 of what makes up a strength. Unfortunately, after stating this, they quickly move on and almost never mention it again. Instead they begin using the terms ‘talent themes’ and ‘strengths’ interchangeably. In doing so they take away the opportunity for the people who listen to them of ever identifying their true, or complete, strengths. Furthermore, this myth is perpetuated by all Gallup-trained ‘strengths coaches’.


The Gallup organization, and other public faces of the strengths-movement (most notably Marcus Buckingham), set out to determine what it was that differentiated ‘great managers’ from other people managers who didn’t get great results. What they found was that the great managers treated their people differently; a key component of which was that these great managers position the members of their teams to play to their strengths. Then as a psychologist (Clifton) and a researcher (Buckingham) they began digging into ‘strengths’ and identified ‘talent themes’ as key attributes that make up much of an individual’s personality. Thus heading off the path of strengths, and into the weeds of ‘personality’.

As one of the expert practitioners in the field – what Gallup called ‘great people managers’, which they researched and studied – I understand:

  • what they got right,
  • what they got wrong, and
  • what they completely missed.

(For convenience, from here on in this article, I will use the single word ‘talent’ in place of ‘talent theme’.)

Where They Went Wrong (or Got It Right…Sorta’):

First a couple definitions as a foundation. Gallup defines…

A strength…“consistent excellent performance in an activity, which requires relatively little effort, and energizes the individual.” [from the book “Now, Discover Your Strengths”]

A talent…“recurring pattern of thought, feeling or perception that are at the core of someone’s personality.” [from the book “StrengthsFinder 2.0”]

Therefore, a talent cannot be a strength, because it has no action! A strength is required to have action, because strengths are activities. Strengths are made up of:

  • Talents – who we are,
  • Knowledge – what you know, and
  • Skills – what we know how to do.

Since only skills have action, all strengths must include at least some amount of skill.

Why is This Important?

Most of us have had that person in our office who has lost their keys three times over the last few days, and they say something like “and they are always in the last place I looked.” And we think to ourselves, “Well of course they were in the last place you looked. What kind of idiot would keep looking for their keys after they found them?” That’s the problem when people are told that their talents are their strengths…they stop looking for their TRUE strengths, because they have been told they already found them.

So people stop looking for that unique combination of talent, knowledge and skills that define their true strength. They focus only on their talents…their ‘top 5’ talents. They attempt to go out into the world and ‘play to their strengths’, with only 1/3 of what makes up a strength. That’s like trying to bake a cake that has 3 ingredients – (if you cook like me) cake mix, water and eggs – by pouring the dry cake mix into a pan, putting it in the oven and expecting a delicious cake to come out. People miss identifying and playing to their true strengths, because they stop looking for them once they know their talents.

Why Else is This Important?

A key aspect of how Gallup differentiated talents from knowledge and skills (although their definitions of knowledge and skills were a little different) IS very powerful. They got this right, and this is one of the most valuable outcomes of their research. They said that talents are not learnable/teachable; while knowledge and skills are learnable. With this understanding of what makes up a strength, it provides the model – the roadmap if you will – for developing a strength. (If our talents really were are strengths, then we couldn’t ‘develop’ them, because talents can’t be developed/grown. If they can’t be learned, they can’t be developed. They simply, ‘are’.)

We develop our strengths by adding knowledge and skills to our talents. We grow our strengths by intentionally growing our knowledge or adding new knowledge. And the same with skills. But skills also need to be practiced, since they include action or behavior.

We can improve the leverage of our strengths by positioning to better utilize our talents, but we can’t strengthen our talents.

Conclusion (Lesson Learned)

So it’s important for those of us who truly want to identify, develop and leverage our strengths, to understand what true (or complete) strengths really are, along with what makes them up. That way we can focus on developing those aspects of a strength that we can, and not waste time trying to learn, or grow, something that isn’t learnable. This is the foundational law upon which the old saying “Don’t try to teach a pig to sing…” is based. Also don’t stop looking for those keys!

Our true strengths are made up of talents, plus knowledge and skills. We develop of our strengths by adding knowledge and skills. And we leverage our strengths by positioning ourselves to utilize our talents.

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