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Overused Strengths

| December 1, 2020

by Rick Fredericks

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is by Rick Fredericks, MOR Associates Program Leader and Leadership Coach.  Rick may be reached at [email protected]]

On a hot May afternoon, I was at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The temperature was 115°. My swollen, blistered feet were cooling in the Colorado River. Blisters were the least of my worries. The hike back to the rim was nine tough miles. My ears were buzzing. Water and energy were low and the heat was pressing down like a hot blanket. I was isolated and in trouble.

This misadventure was due to a disregard of many red flags. And this leads to a big question: how does an individual miss critical signals? The short answer: blind spots. These are a product of overused strengths shorting out a healthy examination of non-conforming data. In the case of my Grand Canyon misadventure, strengths and experiences provided an alluring sense of mastery. This created an epic blind spot bolstered by an acute confirmation bias. The body of under reviewed data could have been consequential. My sun-bleached bones might have been scattered about the Grand Canyon. I imagine a simple weathered sign proclaiming: “Killed by his own ignorance.”

This dichotomy plays out repeatedly in my coaching practice. Many coaching partners have weaknesses that are simply strengths overplayed. A great example is “drive for results”. The positive results may be accompanied by unnoticed complaints of heavy-handed pressure on subordinates. This is not a new observation.  Mary Jo Asmus writes, “Almost every high-performing and high-potential leader out there is driven, and it’s been a key strength that gets them the next promotion. Nonetheless, when this strength is overused, a leader can set their sights on the goal while leaving attention to people behind.” The gratifying hard data on results is center-stage. The “soft data” regarding impact on others is subtler and probably under-recognized.

On the flipside is the high empathy leader. This is described by Robert Kaplan and Rob Kaiser as the individual who “cuts people a little too much slack.” These subordinates may under-perform.  The “nice boss” may respond with an extra dose of niceness. After all, that is the strength that got them here. But this only amplifies the problem. The strength becomes the weakness.

Susan Washburn, a Coach and Program Leader at MOR uses a simple exercise to explore this topic. She asks people to pair an overused strength with its corresponding weakness. For example, “determination” can lead to “stubbornness,” “precision and accuracy” can lead to “analysis paralysis,” “visionary” can lead to “unrealistic,” “methodical” can lead to “unresponsive.” The list goes on. Ultimately, these weaknesses can lead to a set of “bleached bones” scattered at the bottom of the organization’s succession plan. It is a sad irony that critical signals are missed by the “strengths narrative”. This is a cautionary tale for aspiring leaders. “Overused strengths” should be part of any self-assessment.

As always, we believe that lessons are not useful without some applied learning. We invite you to explore your strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps it is time to dust off that old 360. List 2 or 3 strengths that are central to your effectiveness. Next, label a potential outcome of this strength when over-used. It is helpful to realize the tipping point where the strength declines in value. This point of inflection should be a powerful beacon signaling a call for a new goal. Is there a better time to develop a new strength?

In closing, here is a reminder from Carol Dweck that these explorations support a growth mindset. “Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? … And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you?”

We ask that you adopt a growth mindset and never become complacent in your successes. Maintain your leadership agility and view strengths and weaknesses through the lens of continual learning and improvement. Be certain that your sun-bleached bones don’t become an organizational artifact.