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“This is a terrific book—powerful, very impactful. Ninety-five percent of the leaders who read it will say, ‘I’ve got some work to do, and this book will help me do it.’”
—John Ryan, President, Center for Creative Leadership
“Another great set of ideas from Kaplan and Kaiser. How often do we hear the advice to ‘build on your strengths’? That’s just too simple. As a leader, you need to constantly adjust your game. This book tells you how.”
—Liz Mellon, Executive Director, Duke Corporate Education
“This brilliantly practical work explains succinctly how to overcome the powerful tendency to misuse your strengths and become more versatile and balanced in your approach to leading. In an hour or so, find out how development really works and start changing in ways that matter.”
—Michael Lombardo, cofounder, Lominger, Ltd., and author of the bestselling FYI: For Your Improvement
“The practice of executive assessment is overdue for an upgrade. This refreshing book is a big step in the right direction.”
—Sandy Ogg, Operating Partner, Private Equity Group, Blackstone
“The book resonates. It sheds light on a subject that hasn’t been addressed before. We usually say, the weaknesses need to be worked on and the strengths aren’t an issue. I enjoyed the stories. I read it on vacation—that should say something.”
—Steve Angel, CEO, Praxair
“With insightful examples, this book offers practical ways to deal with leadership strengths that can turn into derailers. I recommend it.”
—Mirian Graddick-Weir, Executive Vice President, Human Resources, Merck
“Fear Your Strengths has great content, it’s very practical, and it’s a quick read.”
—James Ryan, CEO, Grainger Inc.
Strengths Beget Weaknesses— In Two Very Different Ways
Rich Spire's 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."
What could possibly be wrong with this picture?
As is often the case with natural leaders, the use of power comes easily to Spire, but perhaps too easily. He so stunningly wields his intellectual firepower and charisma that he makes it a daunting task for others to contend with him. His forceful leadership—a good thing when used in correct proportion—effectively renders him unable to elicit, nurture, and benefit from other input in the organization. "I think he stakes out his positions too early," says one colleague. "People then seek to be in agreement with him rather than bringing their best thinking."
What's more, Spire's penchant for bold, strategic action often exceeds his organization's ability to keep up. It isn't just that he is too aggressive strategically; he correspondingly neglects—and even undervalues— the operational component of his strategy. His CFO puts it this way: "[Spire's] vision outstripped our internal capacity. His strategic reach was too great to be executed with the bench strength we had. It's useful to have vision, but he needs to implement it in a more measured way."
Facing into the headwind of Spire's forceful personality and his voracious appetite to have a big impact, some people on his team simply give up trying to influence him. "It takes too much emotional energy to keep confronting this guy," says one, "and he isn't going to listen anyway." In defeating his loyal opposition, Spire puts himself and his organization at risk.
By taking his talents to such an extreme, Spire undermines those very talents. They in fact become a weakness. There is a tragic irony in this. What could be a great asset turns into, at least in part, a liability. It's an unfortunate loss for the leader and for his organization. Just like a point guard whose uncanny court vision causes him to make lightning-quick passes that catch his teammates flat-footed, or like a running back who is so fast he crashes into his own lineman, a leader of prodigious but immoderate talents will leave half of his team in the dust. A gift can often work against the gifted.
All managers, regardless of level, are likely to overuse their strengths. A leader's desire to be forceful and straightforward with direct reports becomes a tendency to be abusive and peremptory. A devotion to consensus-seeking breeds chronic indecision. An emphasis on being respectful of others degenerates into ineffectual niceness. The desire to turn a profit and serve shareholders becomes a preoccupation with short-term thinking. To the leader whose best tool is a hammer, everything is a nail. A leader who goes to his best tool in every situation, who consistently overplays his hand, may perform adequately, or even well, but he is ultimately far less effective than he might be. As one manager said about himself, "Overusing a strength is underperformance."
The irony that maximizing a strength corrupts it is beautifully captured in Sherwood Anderson's novel Winesburg, Ohio. An old writer on his death bed muses: "In the beginning when the world was young there were truths and they were beautiful, and then people came along. The moment a person took a truth to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live by it, he became grotesque, and the truth became a falsehood."
Overusing one's strength not only corrupts the strength, but it begets weakness in yet another way. What deforms leaders, makes them grotesque, is that not only do they embrace their strength as the only truth but they consequently ignore an equal and opposing strength. The result of this collateral damage is lopsided leadership: too much of one thing made worse by too little of its complement. When Rich Spire overplayed his considerable powers of persuasion, they drowned out his ability to hear the voices of his staff.
Likewise, Spire had the setting on his strategic ambition cranked up so high that it swamped its opposite, operational realism. His CFO, familiar with Rich's instinct to grab strategic ground, would often counsel him: "Let's make sure we execute in a measured way so growth won't just be a flash of light and burn out." Spire confessed, "I jump in with both hands and both feet because I only have one speed: high." For leaders like Spire, the challenge is to turn down the volume on his natural strength and turn it up on its opposite, which he usually ignores. It's all about getting the setting right on both dials.
This is a practical notion that goes back at least as far as Aristotle, who postulated that what is good, virtuous, and effective in thought and action is the midpoint between deficiency and excess. Aristotle's precept has often been mistaken to advocate moderation in all things. On the contrary, speaking of courage, or of compassion, he emphasized that what is needed is the right amount for the circumstances. "Anybody can become angry or give money, but to be angry with or to give money to the right person, and in the right amount, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way—this is not within everybody's power and is not easy." There is no fixed setting on the dial for the proper use of a strength, a virtue. The volume needs to go up or down according to what the situation requires.
There is no better—or more extreme—case of corrupted strengths than that of Jeffrey Skilling, who as company president personified the infamous scandal at Enron. Although Rich Spire's voracious appetite for taking strategic ground crossed the line that separates productive from counterproductive, Skilling's unchecked growth mania eventually crossed the line from counterproductive to ruinous, unethical, and illegal. Skilling had a huge hand in Enron's collapse, which led to what was then, in 2001, history's largest corporate bankruptcy. At the time of this writing, he is in prison, several years into a 25-year sentence for conspiracy, fraud, and insider trading.
Jeffrey Skilling was brought to Enron to head its trading operation, a sideline business in what was primarily an old-line natural-gas company. Brilliant and creative, he saw and seized the opportunity to convert Enron's contracts to buy and sell natural gas into financial instruments that could be traded, something that had never been done in the industry. That was Skilling's strength: he was clever and visionary. But he overplayed that strength and took his business-building zeal beyond ethical limits. He used mark-to-market accounting to book the total estimated value of, say, a tenyear contract on the very day the contract was signed. He engineered financial deals, schemes
Excerpted from Fear Your Strengths by Robert E. Kaplan. Copyright © 2013 by Robert E. Kaplan and Robert B. Kaiser. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
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1 Strengths Beget Weaknesses—In Two Very Different Ways....... 7
2 The Yin-Yang Responsibilities of a Leader.................... 17
3 Mindset.................... 37
4 Dialing Back.................... 57
5 The Complete Leader.................... 81