Think you have a pretty good handle on your skills as a leader? If so, consider this: you might be taking your strengths too far.

Bob Kaplan and Rob Kaiser, authors of The Versatile Leader, say that many successful leaders over-do their strengths. “A strength that is over-used or pushed to the extreme is actually a weakness,” says Kaiser. “Performance suffers if leaders don’t know when to pull back in one area and to emphasize or develop another.”

In their book, Kaplan and Kaiser help leaders (and anyone with responsibility for developing others) to identify when a strength has become too much of a good thing. In doing so, they foster greater versatility in leaders.

“We have all seen leaders go to counterproductive extremes — when devotion to consensus-seeking slows decision-making to a crawl; when a leader’s fertile mind results in repeated changes in direction; when a dedication to high-quality work turns a supervisor into a stickler for detail; when a willingness to go the extra mile leads to burnout,” Kaplan and Kaiser write.

“Overusing strengths is no less of a problem than a shortcoming,” says Kaiser. “But we rarely know that we’ve crossed the line and what was once a valuable skill or trait is now a problem.”

Look for Excess. A chief reason why leaders overuse their strengths is that they underestimate them. “Often their gauge is off: They think they’re only going 55 miles per hour when in fact they’re breaking the speed limit,” Kaiser explains.

Most leadership-assessment tools and feedback processes divide behavior into areas of strength or areas to improve. But you’ll want to take another look at your strengths to see if they are overplayed. Ask your boss, peers or direct reports to see if they can give examples of strengths used to excess. You can also take a two-minute version of Kaplan and Kaiser’s Leadership Versatility Index online.

“You need to know and appreciate your own strengths — but also to understand the effect they have. By overestimating or underestimating strengths, you are distorting your performance,” says Kaiser.

Adjust Your Speed. Once you’ve internalized your strengths, you can capitalize on them in appropriate and effective ways. But understand that this isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition: There are many options between full-speed-ahead and slamming on the brakes.

“Adjusting your leadership to the appropriate level is about matching your behavior to fit the circumstances,” Kaiser explains. “If you have only one speed, you miss opportunities and become less effective.”

Avoid Lopsidedness. Every excess also reveals a deficiency. “When you overdo a strength, you are crowding out a complementary skill or quality,” Kaplan notes. “If you don’t know or can’t draw on behaviors that balance out your strengths, you become a lopsided — and limited — leader.”
The key is to value and develop a wide range of leadership skills, even when they appear to be opposing or contradictory. Kaplan explains: “Versatile leaders recognize that both dimensions are good, desirable and necessary. They can, and do, draw freely on either as circumstances require.”

Overkill is Everywhere

People in leadership positions are notorious for overdoing it – even if they don’t see it themselves.

Bob Kaplan and Rob Kaiser, authors of The Versatile Leader and creators of the Leadership Versatility Index, report that the majority of their sample of 1,200 senior managers overplay at least one broad leadership style. Moreover, every manager in their database is considered by coworkers to overdo it on at least one specific leadership behavior; the typical manager overdoes at least five specific behaviors.

The top 10 behaviors most commonly rated “Too Much” are:

  1. Defends his/her position
  2. Focused on short-term results
  3. Stays with the tried and true
  4. Goes by the book
  5. Assumes authority
  6. Steps in when trouble arises
  7. Makes decisions quickly
  8. In control
  9. Pays attention to detail
  10. Lets you know where he/she stands

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