Matching Strengths To Opportunities


Teams win when leaders excel at matching team member's strengths to opportunities. Making good decisions when it comes to personnel benefits the team member, the team, and the leader who makes the call.

Ulysses S. Grant displayed a unique ability to match strengths to opportunities. I observed this while reading Grant: Personal Memoirs 1839-1865. While never cruel, Grant was forthright when it came to his assessments. Consider his comments about General Thomas. Grant was critical of Thomas's performance during the Civil War, though he emphasizes that Thomas was a valuable officer who richly deserved the plaudits of his countrymen.

As my official letters on file in the War Department, as well as my remarks in this book, reflect upon General Thomas by dwelling somewhat upon his tardiness, it is due to myself, as well as to him, that I give my estimate of him as a soldier. The same remark will apply also in the case of General Canby. I had been at West Point with Thomas one year, and had known him later in the old army. He was a man of commanding appearance, slow and deliberate in speech and action; sensible, honest and brave. He possessed valuable soldierly qualities in eminent degree. He gained the confidence of all who served under him, and almost their love. This implies a very valuable quality. It is quality which calls out the most efficient services of the troops serving under the commander possessing it.

Thomas’s dispositions were deliberately made, and always good. He could not be driven from a point he was given to hold. He was not as good, however, in pursuit as he was in action. I do not believe that he could ever have conducted Sherman’s army from Chattanooga to Atlanta against the defenses and the commander guarding that line in 1864. On the other hand, if it had been given him to hold the line which Johnston tired to hold, neither that general nor Sherman, nor any other officer could have done it better.

Grant exhibited three practices that are essential for matching strengths to opportunities:

1. He carefully observed his team over time.

Grant was a "student" of General Thomas. He walked side-by-side with the general at West Point. He also observed his actions in the Mexican-American War. Grant recognized Thomas' strong character qualities (e.g. sensible, honest, brave, genuinely caring). He noticed that he could "hold a line." Grant also observed his weaknesses. In this case, General Thomas was slow to act (Grant used the word "tardiness").

Leaders are students of people: their personalities, temperaments, capacities, inclinations, strengths and weaknesses. These observations improve the closer the leader is to his or her team. Theodore Roosevelt, who spent considerable time working with the men on his ranch, put it this way, "It is a mighty good thing to know men, not from looking at them, but from having been one of them."

Questions to consider: Is the pace of life and leadership keeping you from being with your team? Are you taking time for "personnel audits," regularly assessing the strengths and weaknesses of your team?

2. He evaluated his team in light of the mission.

Grant knew that different military campaigns required different leaders. In some ways, the mission dictated the leader. Knowing this, Grant regularly evaluated the strength of his army, examined battle fronts, and observed the work of his generals with a view to the mission to be accomplished. This was the case when it came to General Thomas.

Grant knew that Thomas's temperament (slow and deliberate) made him unsuitable for certain aspects of battle. That is why Grant noted that Thomas was "not as pursuit," work that required multiple quick decisions. General Sherman was much better in that department. Sherman repeatedly outmaneuvered Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston leading up to the 1864 battle for Atlanta, resulting in a significant Union victory.

Interestingly, Grant recognized that Thomas would have been the ideal general to "hold the line" if the situation were reversed and the Union Army needed to protect Atlanta. In Grant's mind, "no officer could have done it better." Grant's actions highlight the importance of leaders keeping an eye on both their team and the task at hand.

Questions to consider: Does your team have the right people to accomplish your mission right now? If not, is the issue character, chemistry, competency, or capacity? Are you in need of a "Sherman" or a "Thomas" to move forward?

3. He made the necessary changes to "win."  

At some point, for the sake of the cause and for the sake of the team, leaders need to make the tough call to remove or reposition a team member. Grant did this on several occasions. He took action to match strengths to opportunities. On the other hand, when he felt that a leader was not performing well or was not well-suited to the task, he wasted little time to make a change. Grant recognized that the importance of the cause outweighed the feelings, status, or standing of any individual joined in that cause.

Question to consider: Is there a personnel decision you need to make for your team to be better positioned to accomplish your mission?

God provides the help leaders need

It is hard work to match strengths to opportunities. It takes time to observe and evaluate and it takes courage to make necessary personnel changes. Like Grant, leaders must live with the tension of caring for people and accomplishing the task. This is why leaders must ask God for help and why people must pray for their leaders.

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
— James 1:5-8 ESV
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions. . . . This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior.
— 1 Timothy 2:1-3 ESV

Matching strengths to opportunities is not simple and is rarely easy. Despite the challenges, it is absolutely essential work. Gratefully, God provides the help leaders need to observe, evaluate, and make the necessary changes.


  1. "As my official letters on file ..." from Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Selected Letters 1839-1865. USA: The Library of America. Page 762.
  2. "It is a mighty good thing..." from The Bully Pulpit, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. New York: Simon & Schuster. 2013. Page 126.