Finding the center of strength within ourselves is in the long run the best contribution we can make to our fellow men.

Rollo May, Man’s Search for Himself

A few years ago, I began the process of interviewing senior business leaders who had experienced cancer for a book I am now writing. Generously, leaders from business, government, non-profits, and the judiciary met with me to talk about their dances with cancer and the wisdom they had learned on that journey. As I began to look back over my notes, one of the themes that emerged was the deftness with which they made use of their natural strengths as leaders. The capabilities they brought to their cancer fight were, in a large part, the competencies that had made them successful leaders—focus, discipline, delegation, communication, and other important leadership skills. It was if, in the moments following their diagnosis, they instinctively knew the assets within them that they could rely on in this crisis.

 What are strengths? Marcus Buckingham, in “Go Put your Strengths to Work,” suggests that strengths have three components: talents you are born with, skills you have learned, and knowledge acquired through education, training or experience. In order to leverage your strengths in a crisis, you first have to figure out what they are. Once identified, you can begin to see how those strengths might help you in this current crisis. Here are some ways to start the process:

Check your “life-skills” pantry. Our strengths don’t disappear in a crisis. The talent, skills, and abilities that have helped you be successful in your life up until now can be a platform to help you stay sane and functional during a crisis. As you take stock of your strengths, think about times in which you’ve had to get through a difficult task in your life.

  • Get someone who knows you well to think through your strengths with you. Determine how those strengths can be used in this crisis to accomplish what needs to be done and maintain your own energy and spirit.
  • How did you cope? What did you do? What worked and what didn’t? Even though this crisis may be a more intense or scary situation than those, some of the same actions can work.
  • Take a StrengthsFinder, or similar, online test. ( It is Buckingham’s contention that you can identify a strength by recognizing those things that you 1) do successfully, 2) instinctively, 3) enjoy doing, and 4) you feel fulfilled by having done it. Using this, or similar personality inventories, can be one way to identify yours. Decide if what emerges can be utilized now.

Claim your strengths. Write them down or say them out loud. Share your strengths with others, or make it into an affirmation or mantra. With all the demands you are facing, it’s easy to forget that you are a person with skills and abilities. One of my coaching clients was brilliant at attacking an issue with all of his intelligence, skills and personal will. When he was going through cancer, his mantra was “hit it hard.”

Be honest about your weaknesses. No one is good at everything. There will be skills and abilities you will need that you currently don’t have. Knowing what they are gives you a chance to plan.

  • What doesn’t come naturally or easily to you? Talking to authority figures? Remembering appointments? Thinking on your feet?
  • Ask your friend to help you identify where you will need additional help or resources to get through the challenges ahead.

Take a periodic inventory. Check in with yourself, the situation, and your trusted advisors. Are you overusing your strengths or are there some areas that have emerged where you need some help. Often we find that the strengths we needed at the beginning of a crisis are no longer necessary as it wanes.

Knowing and leveraging your strengths while working thoughtfully with the areas where you need help allows you regain another measure of control in a situation that might feel like a free fall. You are talented and brilliant—don’t let a crisis convince you otherwise