In the last decade, leadership-development experts have enthusiastically pushed to improve their clients’ strengths instead of addressing their weaknesses. This approach may have some success in growing individuals’ effectiveness, but it’s fundamentally flawed.
Strengths training and coaching have somewhat of a cult-like following among HR and coaching professionals. Leaders are encouraged to develop their unique strengths and focus on fortifying areas in which they’re naturally talented.
Amazon sells almost 8,000 books on the subject, including several bestsellers published by Gallup, whose StrengthsFinder assessment tool is now used by 1.6 million employees every year and 467 Fortune 500 companies.
In some companies, even the word “weakness” has become politically incorrect. Staff is instead described as having strengths and “opportunities for growth” or “challenges.”
It’s easy to see why concentrating on leadership strengths is popular. It’s more enjoyable to hone in on innate strengths and avoid discussing weaknesses. But when strengths-oriented programs emphasize a single leadership area, they bypass others—usually to a manager’s detriment.
When strengths are overemphasized, they’re often overused.
“We’ve seen virtually every strength taken too far: confidence to the point of hubris, and humility to the point of diminishing oneself. We’ve seen vision drift into aimless dreaming, and focus narrow down to tunnel vision. Show us a strength and we’ll give you an example where its overuse has compromised performance and probably even derailed a career.”
—Robert B. Kaiser and Robert E. Kaplan, “Don’t Let Your Strengths Become Your Weaknesses,” Harvard Business Review, April 04, 2013
Too Much of a Good Thing
Doing too much of something is as much of a problem as doing too little of it. Most managers can point to a leader who takes things too far: the supportive boss who cuts people a little too much slack or the gifted operational director whose relentless focus on results leads to micromanaging. It can be extremely difficult to recognize these behaviors in yourself.
Other leaders underestimate their assets, downplaying their efforts or deflecting positive feedback. They fail to understand and own the extent of their impact on others.
Successful leaders recognize and accept their talents. They learn how to fine-tune their strengths, becoming self-aware and attuned to appropriate context.
Management assessment tools are usually ill-equipped to pick up on overplayed strengths. Feedback and performance reviews are commonly structured on scales that range from “never” to “sometimes” to “always” (or “doesn’t meet expectations,” “meets them” or “exceeds them”). Assessment scales rarely indicate that a leader exercises too little, the right amount or too much of a quality.
Overplayed strengths are often at the root of career failures. Analyses of derailed leaders show they often rely excessively on qualities linked to past successes but less relevant to current roles.
“What got you here won’t get you there,” Marshall Goldsmith famously stated in his book by the same name (Hachette Books, 2007).
Many leaders fear they’ll lose their edge if they stop overplaying a strength. They must instead learn to use this strength more selectively.
This may be the hardest developmental work you take on. Behavioral changes are a demanding goal, and it’s even harder to change or modulate what you’ve always done well. You must trace your leadership behavior back to the faulty thinking that led you to form false assumptions at some point in your career. This doesn’t mean you have to go into therapy. You can work with an executive coach to realign your leadership strengths.
All managers, regardless of level, are likely to overuse strengths. Doing so not only corrupts these strengths, but creates specific weaknesses. If you believe your strengths are the only way to manage people, you’ll ignore equal, but opposing, strengths. This leads to lopsided leadership, Kaiser and Kaplan explain in Fear Your Strengths: What You Are Best at Could Be Your Biggest Problem (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2013).
Most leaders are familiar with the concept of skill sets coming in pairs. Multiple assessment tools classify people’s preferences as either “task-oriented” vs. “people-oriented,” “big picture” vs. “detail-oriented” or “analytic” vs. “intuitive.”
Our preferences are usually unconscious, reflecting our experiences and innate qualities. We’ve learned to define ourselves as one thing and not the other. Over the course of our careers, one strength grows while the other decays.
Let’s look at the positive and negative characteristics of four personality traits, as explored by Drs. Rick Brinkman and Rick Kirschner in Dealing with People You Can’t Stand: How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst (McGraw-Hill Education, 2002):
While there are many different models of leadership competencies, the one proposed by Kaiser and Kaplan illustrates the tension of dualities that arise in the execution of leadership responsibilities.
“…there are two core dualities that confront all leaders: the need to be forceful combined with the need to be enabling, and the need to have a strategic focus combined with the need to have an operational focus. Together these dualities constitute the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ of leading.”
The authors have used their Leadership Versatility Index (LVI), a 360-degree assessment tool, with more than 7,000 managers who have been rated by 60,000 coworkers. Their results show that the more forceful leaders are, the less enabling they’re likely to be. Strategic and operational leadership are also inversely related.
Big-picture/visionary leaders tend to struggle with implementation, while masters of implementation tend to ignore or underplay strategy. The same holds true for the forceful/enabling dynamic, Kaiser and Kaplan note.
The LVI data reveal a strong association between strategic leadership and high scores on curiosity and open-mindedness, coupled with low scores on rule-abiding/detail-orientation. The opposite associations were found for operational leadership.
Forceful and enabling leadership were related to a different set of traits. Forceful leadership was associated with high scores on ambition and low scores on interpersonal sensitivity. Enabling leadership was associated with the opposite scores.
- Strategically oriented leaders are often lauded for their aggressiveness and vision, but criticized for not being sufficiently grounded in reality.
- Operationally oriented leaders are often admired for their focus and ability to systematically drive an organization toward its goals, but they are also faulted for having tunnel vision and a lack of strategic boldness.
LVI research also reveals 97% of managers who overdo forceful leadership in some respect also underdo enabling leadership, according to their coworkers.
Additionally, 94% who overdo operational leadership in some way also underdo strategic leadership. Yet, only 55% of the managers rated by coworkers as using too much of a leadership attribute rated themselves as overdoing that attribute.
How can you manage people “just right” and take full advantage of your natural talents, without going too far?
The first step is to acknowledge where you overuse your strengths. Start with a review of the ratings on your most recent 360-degree report. Ask coworkers:
- What should I do more?
- What should I do less?
- What should I continue doing?
Ask yourself whether you privately pride yourself on being superior to other leaders in any way. This is precisely the attribute you’re at risk of overdoing. Take a look at its polar opposite. Explore with your coach how you can experiment with new behaviors that have been underused.
Fine-tuning your strengths is an art that requires a blend of self-awareness and situational awareness.
- Self-awareness allows you to handle challenges by responding appropriately rather than reactively. When you know what your default tendencies are, you can pause and mindfully choose a response instead of acting out of habit.
- Situational awareness helps you regulate the “volume controls” of your strengths with regard to audience and context.
It would be unrealistic to suggest that everyone can become fully balanced. LVI research finds only 5% of executives get it right on forceful vs. enabling leadership, as well as strategic vs. operational leadership.
Most managers lean one way or another. This lopsidedness hurts your personal and team effectiveness. Sound leadership depends on learning how to stop overdoing a given attribute and underdoing its polar opposite.
Shifting your preferred mindset is no doubt challenging, but you can successfully conquer this goal with your coach’s help.