Fear your strengths.
That’s the message — and the title of a new book — from Bob Kaplan and Rob Kaiser.
In Fear Your Strengths: What You Are Best At Could Be Your Biggest Problem, the longtime leadership consulting duo pull together decades of research and work with executives to understand the downside of our strengths.
“We’ve found that you really do need to worry about the tendency to take something good too far and undermining that virtue — all the more so because it easily can be a blind spot,” says Kaplan. “Leaders aren’t nearly as alert to the danger of strengths overused as they are to weaknesses.”
Strengths overplayed become liabilities in two ways: A strength is used too intensely and too often, and opposite or complementary strengths are overlooked and undeveloped. This skewed skill set limits leaders’ versatility and effectiveness.
In one study, Kaplan and Kaiser found that leaders are five times more likely to overdo a strength than their other attributes. “Whatever they were best at, they got carried away with,” explains Kaiser.
Consider “Rich,” a successful executive with a “commanding presence” and a “gift for articulating his vision in a way that persuades and excites people.” He is known for his talent, intelligence and strategic insight.
“He so stunningly wields his intellectual firepower and charisma that he makes it a daunting task for others to contend with him,” Kaplan and Kaiser write. “His forceful leadership effectively renders him unable to elicit, nurture and benefit from other input in the organization … What’s more, his penchant for bold strategic action often exceeds his organization’s ability to keep up … he undervalues the operational component of his strategy … leaves much of his team and organization in the dust.”
Rich believed so strongly in his gifts — strategic vision and power of persuasion — that he ignored an equal and opposing strength: the ability to listen to others in the organization.
Keep in mind that to stop overplaying a strength does not mean to stop using it altogether. It’s more about dialing down the volume on the strength — and turning it up on its opposite. As one hyper-intense executive put it, “I don’t have to give up my fast ball. I just don’t have to throw it all the time.”
Modulating your strengths is some of the hardest developmental work you will ever do, according to Kaplan and Kaiser. The process involves:
Accepting yourself. It isn’t enough to know yourself. You must unflinchingly reconcile yourself to the reality of who you are and how you lead. Understand both what you do — and why you do it. Surprisingly, many leaders don’t know their strengths — or they underestimate them. And they are often driven by assumptions or mindsets that are not true or relevant.
Testing yourself. The accumulation of new experience is a ticket to growing and improving. To be a versatile, effective leader, you need to dial back strengths and learn to dial up the opposing thing. This takes practice and the ability to read the people and situation to know how to respond most effectively.
Offsetting yourself. Being effective isn’t all about you. Offset yourself by putting in place counterbalancing people and processes, and then allow them to influence you.
Finally, your best chance of making change stick is to work on both mindset change and behavior change.
“The outer work of behavior change and the inner work of mindset change are mutually reinforcing and complementary,” says Kaiser. “If you want to sustain behavior change you do have to work at both levels to keep it going. One without the other has a marginal chance of working.”