Do Not Try to Change Yourself or Others; You Are Unlikely to Succeed

Do Not Try to Change Yourself or Others; You Are Unlikely to Succeed

Bowman, Richard F


The ancient Greeks proclaimed, “Know thyself.” This prescript is particularly critical in the educational arena because no pedagogical tool can serve a teacher or a student who lacks self-knowledge. Effective educators understand that only by knowing and capitalizing on their own and students’ strengths can they achieve true excellence. Unfortunately, many of us focus on repairing weaknesses rather than using our strengths to their greatest advantage. For preservice and in-service teachers, the controlling insight that bears repeating is this: Do not try to change your students or yourself; you are unlikely to succeed. Rather, learn and play up to your and others’ strengths for true classroom success.

Knowing oneself is the initial step in taking responsibility for developing and managing one’s talents, abilities, and limitations. Cultivating a deep understanding of your strengths, attributes, values, and how you perform optimally allows you to place yourself where you can make the greatest contribution. The father of modern management, Peter Drucker (2005, 100) framed the challenge: “We need to know our strengths in order to know where we belong.”

Successful teachers know their strengths and weaknesses, how they learn, how they relate to others, what their values are, and where they can make the greatest contribution. Moreover, effective teachers enable self-knowledge in their students by helping them to discover their strengths. To achieve focused results in the classroom, productive teachers draw upon a constellation of developed attributes: habits, traits, competencies, knowledge, style, motives, values, and character. Effective educators, however, know one other thing: “Only when you operate from strengths can you achieve true excellence” (Drucker 2005, 100).

Operating from Strengths

In a post-observation conference with a student teacher recently, both the cooperating teacher and university supervisor’s feedback analysis focused on the student teacher’s litany of instructional strengths. Midstream, however, the student teacher inquired anxiously, “What are my weaknesses? How can I improve?” Worrisome is that the student teacher’s query mirrors a fascination in contemporary culture with identifying individuals’ weaknesses. As a result, many teachers, administrators, and organizational leaders focus disproportionately on attempting to turn incompetent performers into mediocre ones. Again, Drucker (2005, 102) summarized the issue: “One should waste as little effort as possible on improving areas of low competence. It takes far more energy and work to improve from incompetence to mediocrity than it takes to improve from first-rate performance to excellence.”

Psychologist James Loehr studied what great tennis players such as Martina Navratilova do when they take a 20-second break between points in a tennis match. Loehr (in Secretan 2005, 12) discovered that “the best players spend the time preparing for the next point, relaxing, energizing themselves, planning their strategy, and tuning their minds. In contrast, mediocre players use that time to react to the previous point-scolding themselves after a missed point, for example.” Loehr discovered that low achievers focus on their weaknesses while high achievers focus on their strengths.

Though conventional wisdom suggests that leaders and teachers enhance others’ performance by helping them to identify and overcome weaknesses, Buckingham and Coffman (1999), in a massive study of 80,000 managers across 25 years, discovered that great managers share one common trait: They do not try to help colleagues overcome their weaknesses. Rather, great managers build on colleagues’ unique strengths. According to Buckingham and Coffman (1999, 79), the real work of educators and administrators in their roles of teachers and developmental coaches is captured in the illuminating mantra of great managers:

People don’t change that much. Don’t waste time trying to fix what was left out. Try to draw out what was left in. That is hard enough.

In the classroom and in the workplace, corrective feedback has its place in assessing competence and reinforcing expectations. Roberts et al. (2005, 75) conceded, “Multiple studies have shown that people pay attention to negative information.” In fact, research (Roberts et al. 2005) suggested that individuals tend to recall four negative memories for every positive one. Feedback that ferrets out one’s flaws, however, can trigger an overinvestment of time and energy in repairing perceived weaknesses. Similarly, Roberts et al. (2005, 75) argued, “You may have more to gain by developing your gifts and leveraging your natural skills than by trying to repair your weaknesses.” Thus, while “people remember criticism, awareness of faults doesn’t necessarily translate into better performance” (Roberts et al. 2005, 80).

A classroom or a faculty workgroup with a strengths-based orientation counterbalances the downside of negative feedback by tapping into acknowledged strengths, as well as unrecognized and unexplored areas of human potential. Ironically, knowing one’s strengths offers students and colleagues a better understanding of how to deal with and work around one’s weaknesses. Buckingham and Clifton’s (2001) research underscored the overarching significance of fostering excellence by identifying, harnessing, and celebrating individuals’ unique strengths. Moreover, their research findings have instructive implications for assisting teachers and students to identify talents, build them into strengths, and achieve consistent, enhanced performance in the classroom.

Building a Strengths-Based Professional Orientation

In the author’s clinical work with more than 600 student teachers during the past few years, he has encouraged preservice teachers to focus on acquiring the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that they will need to fully realize their strengths during a career in classroom teaching and, ultimately, place themselves in an educational setting where their strengths can produce growth and fulfillment for their students, their colleagues, and themselves. Moreover, student teachers have been encouraged to discreetly request the following information (Drucker 2005, 107) from everyone with whom they work or will work during the next 50 years, whether colleague, superior, subordinate, or student: “What do I need to know about your strengths? About how you perform best? Your core values? About your proposed contribution to this class, this school, and this community?” Similarly, in their student teaching placements, clinical students are reminded that the first secret of a successful placement is to know their cooperating teacher so well that they can draw on his or her strengths in both daily planning and teaching.

How does one discover one’s strengths? Feedback analysis was a technique employed by John Calvin in the Calvinist church and Ignatius Loyola of the Jesuit order in the 16th century to determine where one’s strengths lie (Drucker 2005). This process entails that whenever a key decision is made or a significant action is taken, one writes down what he or she expects to happen as a result. Drawing on 50 years of experience using feedback analysis, Drucker (2004, 280) contended, “After two to three years of use, you will pknow your strengths by tracking those decisions and actions where actual results fell in line with or exceeded expectations.” With persistence, one gets a contextual sense of strengths, including areas in which one is not particularly competent or has no strengths and, thus, simply cannot perform. Feedback analysis also reveals self-defeating bad habits such as procrastination, intellectual arrogance, and a disregard for social skills. Disabling bad habits are significant pieces of self-knowledge that one must either attempt to work around or concentrate on acquiring the minimum skills required to realize one’s predominant strengths.

At the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS), Roberts et al. (2005) employed a feedback protocol called Reflected Best Self. The first task is to collect feedback from a variety of people both inside and outside one’s workplace on one’s strengths, accompanied by specific examples of moments or instances in which one used those strengths in ways that were meaningful. Research suggested (Roberts et al. 2005) that the recipient of the feedback characteristically is surprised and deeply moved by the detail, relevance, and consistency of comments from the respondents. The next step in the process is to write a description of oneself that summarizes and distills the accumulated feedback. Roberts et al. (2005, 78-79) contended that one’s self-portrait “should not be a set of bullet points but rather a prose composition beginning with the phrase, ‘When I am at my best, I . . . .'” The writing process is intended to cement the image of one’s best self into one’s consciousness.

Buckingham and Clifton (2001) argued that most individuals have little sense of their gifts, talents, and strengths, much less the ability to build their workplace lives around them. The authors contended that many people become experts in their weaknesses and spend their lives attempting to repair suspected flaws, while their strengths lie dormant and neglected.

The Gallup Organization conducted a systematic study of excellence in diverse professions and occupations that involved 2 million subjects across 30 years. From this mosaic of knowledge, skills, and talent, 34 of the most prevalent themes of human talent emerged. Based on this information, The Gallup International Research and Education Center developed a Web-based profile called Strengths Finder, which “will immediately reveal your five dominant themes of talent” (Buckingham and Clifton 2001, 12). For an aspiring teacher, for example, a timely sense of one’s signature themes could prove to be a key part of the reflective process of finding one’s life work. Moreover, Buckingham and Coffman (1999, 3) contended that to excel in one’s chosen field and to find a deep and lasting fulfillment in doing so, one “will need to become an expert at finding and describing and applying and practicing and refining his or her strengths.”

A feedback technique that works well for young students in sensing and discovering one’s strengths involves a journal-writing exercise in which students craft responses to two questions: “What was the best day of my life spent in school?” and “What was the worst day of my life spent in school?” This variation of Roberts et al.’s (2005) portrait-writing process helps students gain a more vivid and developed sense of what psychologists call one’s “possible self.” Through these self-interrogations, students get a rejuvenated image of what they might or might not be in contrasting contexts.

A companion question that occasionally elicits an audible gulp from a classroom full of adolescents is, “What do you want to be remembered for in life?” When a teacher of moral authority poses that question early enough in a student’s life, so that he or she will continue to be shadowed by it as he or she matures, the question becomes transformative. That is, the question induces self renewal “because it pushes you to see yourself as a different person-the person you can become” (Drucker 2004, 176).

Building a Strengths-Based Leadership Orientation in the Classroom

In his 30 years of research on the human qualities and traits of great leaders, Secretan (2005, 13) discovered that great leaders have “a clear inner knowing about their strengths and how they were going to live them in the world.” Specifically, Secretan (2005, 13) concluded, “This is something we can do for ourselves too, and teach the people we lead.” In helping students or colleagues to clarify the strengths to be lived out in their lives, Secretan (2005, 13) drew on seven areas of questions:

* What is my Destiny? Why am I here on Earth? How does my life make a difference? To what am I prepared to dedicate my life?

* What is my Cause? How will I be while I am here? What will I stand for? How will my work or contributions make a difference?

* What is my Calling? What will I do and how will I use my talents and passion to serve?

* Are my Destiny, Cause, and Calling aligned? Is my Calling aligned with the Cause of our organization?

* How can I serve you?

* How can I guide your contribution of brilliance and help you to grow and become fulfilled?

* Am I inspiring others in everything I say and do? Am I creating the conditions that will inspire me?

In essence, teachers guide students and colleagues to greatness by inspiring them. Specifically, teachers inspire students by channeling their energy and passion toward their strengths as opposed to their weaknesses. While students need to be clearly aware of their weaknesses and what makes them afraid, they need to be even clearer about those personal strengths that will result in “an increase in performance, service, and life-satisfaction” (Secretan 2005, 14).

Complex Task of Responding to Individual Differences

In Howard Gardner’s (1999) research on multiple intelligences, the complex world of individual differences received a fresh airing. Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences has been a significant force in attempting to identify distinct intelligences that operate independently of one another in diverse cultural and academic settings. Yet, much greater agreement exists among scientists and educators on the need to respond to individual strengths and differences than on precisely how teachers should go about doing so (Silver, Strong, and Perini 2000; Gardner 2004; Zwiers 2004). Many practitioners, nonetheless, have faithfully chronicled classroom applications of the eight distinct intelligences that Gardner identified: linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist (Gardner 1999; Armstrong 2000). Whether or not these intelligences should be characterized more accurately as talents remains a matter of considerable scientific debate. According to Willingham (2004, 19), what is clear, however, is that “Gardner has been careful to say that he has proposed a scientific theory that should not be mistaken as a prescription for schooling. The sole general implication he supports is that children’s minds are different, and an education system should take account of those differences.”

In Willingham’s (2004, 24) psychometric critique of Gardner’s research on multiple intelligences, he concluded:

In the end, Gardner’s theory is simply not all that helpful. For scientists, the theory of the mind is almost certainly incorrect. For educators, the daring applications forwarded by others in Gardner’s name (and of which he apparently disapproves) are unlikely to help students. All in all, educators would likely do well to turn their time and attention elsewhere.

Shaping and Sustaining Excellence in the Classroom

Where should educators turn their time and attention? What is it, for example, that good teachers actually do to engage students and deepen learning? In Mr. Sammler’s Planet (Bellow 1970, 228), Artur Sammler observed, “It is sometimes necessary to repeat what we all know. All mapmakers should place the Mississippi in the same location, and avoid originality.” Gardner’s (1993) notion that teachers should introduce a topic with different entry points designed to intrigue the student with instructional representations that tap into the learner’s particular strengths mirrors conceptually what effective teachers have done across time. Drucker (2005, 103) clarified the issue: “Just as people achieve results by doing what they are good at, they also achieve results by working in ways that they perform best.” President Kennedy was a prime example of one who learned and performed best through reading. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, nearly destroyed his presidency “by not knowing that he was a listener” (Drucker 2005, 103). Though he did poorly in school, Winston Churchill sensed, early on, his impact as a first-class writer. Not surprisingly, many of the nation’s most prominent attorneys learn and perform best by speaking. Contemporary learning theory also supports the belief that many individuals learn and perform best by doing, while others learn best by watching. Still others perform optimally by creating knowledge and results relationally in teams.

Drucker (2005, 104) stated: “Do not try to change yourself; you are unlikely to succeed. But, work hard to improve the way that you perform.” For preservice and in-service teachers, this is critical advice. For example, in assigning projects and daily work, productive teachers structure tasks so that they draw on students’ strengths, reinforce how they learn, and honor how they perform best, in a way that resonates with their values. In contrast, attempting to force a student to overcome a suspected weakness in an area where he or she has no real strengths is likely to be as unsuccessful as attempting to change one’s blood type.

Buckingham (2005) posited three controlling insights for shaping and sustaining excellence in contemporary classrooms:

* Instructionally, the great teacher imagines that he or she will succeed by discovering, emphasizing, magnifying, and building on each student’s uniqueness in turning talents into academic performance.

* Emotionally, the caring teacher imagines that he or she will succeed by satisfying students’ needs for security, authority, community, and respect for individual differences.

* Intentionally, the great teacher imagines that he or she will succeed by being preoccupied with the need for instructional clarity as the antidote to student, faculty, and parental anxiety.

At that confluent point, teacher and student “will go forth from strength to strength” (Psalms 84: 5).


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Richard F. Bowman is Professor of Clinical Experiences in the College of Education at Winona State University. His scholarly interests include community as the organizing principle, communities of moral discourse, leadership without power, generative coaching, dialogic processes, and change based on living-systems principles.

Copyright Kappa Delta Pi Fall 2006

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