Fear Your Strengths: What You Are Best at Could Be Your Biggest Problem

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Leaders have countless resources and books aimed at helping them discover their strengths-which is fantastic-but none of them address what happens when these strengths are inevitably overplayed and start to do more damage than good, or what to do to rectify that dilemma. Until now.

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1 Strengths Beget Weaknesses—In Two Very Different Ways

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RICH SPIRES TALENT SHIMMERS. He embodies everything that the word “leader” has come to mean in the business world. The same raw, competitive instinct he had as a baseball player in Little League and right through college—always swinging for the fences—animates his leadership today. As president of a sector of a large, fast-growing technology company, he never shies away from making big, bold moves. He knows his business and is uncannily adept at identifying industry trends and opportunities. He has a positive attitude that won’t quit. “Self-actualization,” he often says, “comes from the impossible dream achieved.”

Spire is a commanding presence with a true gift for articulating his vision in a way that persuades and excites people—not just in broad terms but, as one colleague says, “with enough color and granularity that people can grasp their portion of the vision.”

“He has more potential than anyone I know,” says another. “He has huge talent, intelligence, and strategic insight. And it’s all wrapped up in a charismatic package.”

 

2 The Yin-Yang Responsibilities of a Leader

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THERE IS NO BETTER single expression of ideal leadership than the ancient Chinese concept of yin and yang. The Chinese saw nature as the interplay of dualities that had both complementary and opposing characteristics—sky and earth, day and night, water and fire, active and passive, male and female. Neither element in the pair takes prominence or precedence, but each is useful and valid and reinforces the other in a positive dynamic. The familiar yin-yang symbol represents this perfectly, showing two black-and-white teardrop shapes, curled and flowing into each other, continually adapting to each other to form a continuous and complete circle. The elements are negative images of each other, yet they are interdependent and inextricable.

When it comes to leadership, the importance of this idea is a practical, not a philosophical, matter. Leaders are no strangers to the idea that skill sets come in pairs. They often refer to themselves as “balanced” or not, as “task-oriented” or “people-oriented.” Despite this awareness, however, few leaders are able to combine opposite approaches in a holistic way. They usually resolve the tension between the two sides simply by taking a position and favoring one over the other. In fact, lopsided leadership could be described as dysfunctional duality, in which one element of a pair of strengths has grown to dominate and to stunt the other.

 

3 Mindset

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AS RALPH WALDO EMERSON PUT IT, “What is life but the angle of vision? People are measured by the angle at which they look at objects.” Everyone has set ways of viewing the world—themselves and their roles included. It is our worldview—our loose bundle of truths for leading and living—that drives our actions.

Imagine a leader standing alone in a room. On one wall the word “yang” is emblazoned and, on the opposite wall, “yin.” The leader is facing one wall and his back is completely turned to the other. He is blind to it. For all intents and purposes, it simply does not exist for him so he makes no attempt to consider it or change his position in the room to see it. This is the very definition of “absolute lopsidedness.” Now, imagine a second leader whose location in the room affords her a view of both walls. Because both are in her purview, she is inclined to consider both and, as she moves around the room, she continuously keeps both in view. This is the very definition of “versatile leadership.”

 

4 Dialing Back

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LEFT TO THEIR OWN DEVICES, most leaders won’t work on their mindset. They are more conditioned to work on their behavior itself—their form—than on the psychology behind it. They are used to getting feedback on their behavior, coming up with a plan to change it, and trying to behave in the prescribed new way. But they leave mindset leverage on the table. It only makes sense, however, that you address what is inside your head that threw off your form in the first place, the warped views and emotional forces that result in overdoing it and lopsidedness. As Einstein put it, “We can’t solve problems using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Mindset change is not just an enabler of behavior change. Mindset change and behavior change have equal standing. They are parallel tracks toward improvement and need to be given equal standing in any action plan. Your best chance of making change stick is to do both the outer work and the inner work of improving. The complementary efforts can be summarized in a simple one-by-two matrix. For instance, the hyperintense, fastball-throwing leader mentioned in this book’s introduction framed his improvement plan this way:

 

5 The Complete Leader

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OF ALL THE LEADERS we have encountered, Will Stonecraft came closest to possessing ideal versatility. As the head of a major line of business in his company, Will was fluent both strategically and operationally and kept both perspectives in continual balance. He rarely talked strategy without considering the operational implications, and when he raised tactical issues, it was always in a strategic context. He had a singular ability, possessed by very few in- or outside of organizational life, to be absolutely, forcefully direct and at the same time nonthreatening. He was able to confront people with such tact that though they got the message loud and clear, they didn’t so much feel confronted as considered, reassured, and improved. When he decided that an executive needed to be moved out of his or her role or from the company altogether, he did it in a good way that in most cases left the relationship intact. When it came to balancing yin and yang, he almost always got his settings right.

 

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