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.
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 home in on innate strengths and avoid discussing weaknesses. But when strengths-oriented programs emphasize a single leadership area, 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
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.
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.
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.
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. Work with an executive coach to experiment with new or underused behaviors.
Are you working in a company where executive coaches provide leadership development to help leaders put strengths-based leadership into action? Does your organization provide executive coaching for leaders who need to build a company culture built on trust? Transformational leaders tap into their emotional intelligence and social intelligence skills to create a more fulfilling future.
One of the most powerful questions you can ask yourself is “Am I a transformational leader who inspires individuals and organizations to achieve their highest potential, flourish at work, experience elevating energy and achieve levels of effectiveness difficult to attain otherwise?” Emotionally intelligent and socially intelligent organizations provide executive coaching to help leaders create a culture where respect and trust flourish.
Working with a seasoned executive coach and leadership consultant trained in emotional intelligence and incorporating assessments such as the Bar-On EQ-i 2.0, Hogan Lead, CPI 260 and Denison Culture Survey can help leaders nurture strengths-based conversations in the workplace. You can become an inspiring leader who models emotional intelligence and social intelligence, and who inspires people to become fully engaged with the vision, mission and strategy of your company or law firm.
Working Resources is a San Francisco Bay Area executive coaching and leadership development firm helping innovative companies and law firms develop emotionally intelligent and mindful leaders. We help build coaching cultures of positive engagement.
...About Dr. Maynard Brusman
Dr. Maynard Brusman
Consulting Psychologist and Executive Coach|
Trusted Advisor to Executive Leadership Teams
Emotional Intelligence & Mindful Leadership Workplace Expert
I coach leaders to cultivate clarity, creativity, focus, trust, and full engagement in a purpose-driven culture.
Dr. Maynard Brusman is a consulting psychologist and executive coach. He is the president of Working Resources, a leadership consulting and executive coaching firm. We specialize in helping San Francisco Bay Area companies select and develop emotionally intelligent leaders.
Maynard is a highly sought-after speaker and workshop leader. He facilitates leadership retreats in Northern California and Costa Rica.
“Maynard Brusman is one of the foremost coaches in the United States. He utilizes a wide variety of assessments in his work with senior executives and upper level managers, and is adept at helping his clients both develop higher levels of emotional intelligence and achieve breakthrough business results. As a senior leader in the executive coaching field, Dr. Brusman brings an exceptional level of wisdom, energy, and creativity to his work.” — Jeffrey E. Auerbach, Ph.D., President, College of Executive Coaching
The Society for Advancement of Consulting (SAC) awarded rare "Board Approved" designations in the specialties of Executive Coaching and Leadership Development. Alan Weiss, Ph.D., President, Summit Consulting Group
Are you an executive leader who wants to be more effective at work and get better results?
Did you know that research has demonstrated, that the most effective leaders model high emotional intelligence, and that EQ can be learned? It takes self-awareness, empathy, and compassion to become a more emotionally intelligent leader.
Emotionally intelligent and mindful leaders inspire people to become fully engaged with the vision and mission of their company. Mindful leadership starts from within.
I am a consulting psychologist and executive coach. I believe coaching is a collaborative process of providing people with the resources and opportunities they need to self manage, develop change resiliency and become more effective. Utilizing instrumented assessments - clients set clear goals, make optimal use of their strengths, and take action to create desired changes aligned with personal values.
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Over the past thirty-five years, I have coached hundreds of leaders to improve their leadership effectiveness.
After only 6 months, one executive coaching client reported greater productivity, and more stress resiliency helping her company improve revenues by 20%. While this may depend on many factors most of my clients report similar satisfaction in their EQ leadership competence leading to better business results.
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