Fear Your Strengths: What You Are Best at Could Be Your Biggest Problemby Robert E. Kaplan, Robert B. Kaiser
Once you’ve discovered your strengths, you need to discover something else: your strengths can work against you.
Many leaders know this on some intuitive level, and they see it in others. But they don’t see it as clearly in themselves. Mainly, they think of leadership development as working on their weaknesses. No wonder. The tools used to assess
Once you’ve discovered your strengths, you need to discover something else: your strengths can work against you.
Many leaders know this on some intuitive level, and they see it in others. But they don’t see it as clearly in themselves. Mainly, they think of leadership development as working on their weaknesses. No wonder. The tools used to assess managers are not equipped to pick up on overplayed strengths—when more is not better.
Nationally recognized leadership experts Bob Kaplan and Rob Kaiser have conducted thousands of assessments of senior executives designed to determine when their strengths serve them well—versus betray them. In this groundbreaking book, they draw on their data and practical experience to identify four fundamental leadership qualities, each positive in and of itself but each of which, if overemphasized, can seriously compromise your effectiveness. Most leaders, they’ve found, are “lopsided”—they favor certain qualities to the exclusion of others without realizing it. The trick is to keep all four in balance.
Fear Your Strengths provides tools to help you become aware of your leadership leanings and excesses and provides insights for combatting the mindset that encourages them. It offers a practical psychology of leadership, a better way for leaders to calibrate their performance so that you can make sure your strengths don’t overpower you but rather move you—and your organization—forward.
—David B. Peterson, PhD, Director of Learning and Development, Google Inc.
“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.
- Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
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- New Edition
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Read an Excerpt
THIS BOOK IS THE CULMINATION of the surprising epiphanies and serendipitous insights we have garnered over a lifetime of working with senior leaders, including the CEOs of major corporations, to help them increase their effectiveness. We did not set out to discover what the leadership field has overlooked, but over the years, as we helped these leaders look in the mirror, each little revelation was like a curtain lifting on a neglected part of the drama of leadership. Most of what we have observed is in plain view yet its significance has been missed or it hasn’t been put into practice.
Fifteen years ago, a routine executive assessment provided us with just such a seminal moment. We were working with an executive whose 360-degree evaluation characterized him, as one coworker had put it, as “an elemental force in nature.” Yet his effectiveness as a leader was less than optimal. “Look,” we offered, “you are clearly a force to be reckoned with.” Then we took it a step further. “The problem is that at times you’re overly forceful.” There it was. In a way we had never quite realized or articulated before, we acknowledged that too much strength can be a weakness. It dawned on us that doing too much of something was as much of a problem as doing too little of it.
Put differently, your strengths can work against you. Many leaders know this on some intuitive level, but they tend not to accept it in practice. It’s not even in most managers’ vocabulary. Mainly, they think of leadership development as working on their weaknesses. No wonder. The tools used to assess managers are not equipped to pick up on strengths overplayed. In performance appraisals, managers are typically rated as not meeting expectations, meeting expectations, or exceeding expectations. In coworker feedback questionnaires, popularly known as 360s, managers are typically rated as ineffective, effective, or very effective. Nowhere in most assessments is there language or diagnostics that can reveal when someone is overdoing it—when more is not better.
The lack of attention paid to strengths overplayed has persisted despite the glut of books—most notably, Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton’s Now, Discover Your Strengths—exhorting managers to focus on their strengths. Remarkably, in their enthusiasm to accentuate the positive, Buckingham and other strengths advocates fail to point out to their managerial audience the ever-present danger of taking their strengths too far.
In our consulting work, we have increasingly focused on making leaders aware of that danger and enabling the important developmental work necessary to mitigate it. We have enjoyed enviable firsthand exposure to senior leaders, conducted thousands of assessments of individual executives, and collected reams of data. We have put our thinking into practice in the form of an assessment tool, the Leadership Versatility Index (LVI, US Patent No. 7,121,830), a coworker-feedback questionnaire (360) that we designed expressly to assess for strengths overplayed. It has in turn served to further refine our thinking.
Our statistical findings as well as our practical experience form the basis of this book. We regularly illustrate our insights with case studies of executives with whom we have worked closely and extensively. To guard the executives’ anonymity, the protagonist of each “case” is actually a composite and real names are not used. But the anecdotes, experiences, and voices we describe are unfailingly real, as are the problems we identified and the solutions that were implemented.
Among our most surprising findings has been that leaders often have a hard time acknowledging their strengths in the first place. Once, when preparing for a feedback session, we were startled to see that the executive was so highly rated that there seemed to be practically nothing wrong with his leadership. “We’ve got nothing to work with,” we thought. It was unnerving. It turned out, however, that there was plenty of “ammunition” in the positive feedback. This individual underestimated his assets and, as a result, sometimes overcompensated, making him less effective than he might have been.
Gifted leaders, we have found, are often the last ones to acknowledge their gifts, even when they have ample evidence and feedback that attests to it. The practical fact is that the only way to manage your strengths is to accept them. If you literally don’t know your own strength, you have no way to calibrate or modulate it. In a relentless effort to be better, you have no way of knowing if you are going too far. One of the main missions of this book is to help you come to grips with your strengths and make full use of them without overdoing it.
We have also found that, for most executives, waking up to the potential dangers inherent in their strengths can be a vertigo-inducing shock. As one senior leader admitted, “The idea is unsettling. It’s chilling. I really mean that.” When leaders are faced with the prospect that the very intensity that fueled their rise to the top can be smothering their coworkers and sabotaging their effectiveness, they are often panic-stricken at the thought of needing to ease up. “I’m afraid I’ll lose my edge,” is what we often hear, a reaction that is natural but misguided. In what may be the cruelest of ironies, overplayed strengths are often at the root of career failure. Analyses of derailed leaders time and again point to the excessive reliance on qualities that were key to past success but less relevant to the current role. We have learned that to stop overplaying a strength does not mean, as many leaders fear, to stop using it. It means using the strength more selectively. As another hyperintense executive finally realized, “I don’t have to give up my fast ball. I just don’t have to throw it all the time.”
Coming to grips with the need to modulate your strengths is some of the hardest developmental work you will ever do. After all, it’s your strengths that have made you successful. Why would you ever tamper with a winning formula? As one client quipped, “Overplaying your strengths: that’s a comfy, cozy place to be.” We wrote this book to ease the transition, to offer you real developmental leverage on both a behavioral level and a personal level. The work on yourself isn’t therapy. It is a plainspoken and useful approach that helps you trace your leadership behavior back to the “crooked thinking” and “trigger points” that can throw it off kilter. We offer a practical psychology of leadership—a better way for leaders to get a reading on their performance, one that is truer to the realities of managerial work. Leadership development amounts to moving an individual from point A to point B. Each of the insights and practices described in this book offers the leader added leverage for making that move.
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 ten-year contract on the very day the contract was signed. He engineered financial deals, schemes really, that removed debt from Enron’s balance sheet and thereby projected a false picture of the company’s financial condition. In the end, Enron had borrowed $38 billion of which only $13 billion appeared on the balance sheet.
Skilling’s leadership was lopsided in so many ways. A big-idea guy, he ignored the blocking and tackling of implementation. When picking people, he overvalued intellect and undervalued social skills. When rewarding people, he overrelied on money as a motivator but was personally abusive and grossly neglected the organization’s increasingly destructive and corrupt culture.
Skilling was also a classic victim of the Peter Principle. He was made president of Enron despite coming from a consultant background devoid of operational experience on the industrial side. He lacked the practical experience to know there are some things you can’t do. To compound the problem, Skilling either ignored or steamrolled Enron’s Risk Assessment and Control (RAC) group, whose job it was to veto deals that broke the rules or ran exceedingly high business risks.
In the end, no one individual, discrete event, or single policy brought Enron down. The collapse was aided and abetted by CEO Kenneth Lay, CFO Andrew Fastow, and a host of other lieutenants, as well as the outside accounting firm, Arthur Anderson, which ultimately signed off on Enron’s false financial statements. The book that chronicled Enron’s downfall, The Smartest Guys in the Room, described it this way: “The scandal grew out of a steady accumulation of habits, values, and actions that began years before and finally spiraled out of control.” But Skilling was the leader. Ultimately, it was his excessiveness and his lopsidedness that bred and sanctioned Enron’s out-of-control culture.
The destructiveness of overweening strength can be seen in endless leadership examples, from the historically notorious, such as Hitler or Mao Zedong, to the ignominious, such as Jeffrey Skilling, to the immoderate, such as Rich Spire—each larger than life in his own context. However, there are also multitudes of leaders at all levels of every imaginable type of organization laboring in relative obscurity whose leadership is marred by the same fundamental dynamic. Daily organizational life is replete with examples, and the warning signs can be quite commonplace.
A most ordinary example is overtalking. Some leaders who excel at expressing themselves articulately and at great length have a lot to offer but don’t know when to stop. Eventually, the energy goes out of the room. Other leaders who talk too much are storehouses of knowledge or great storytellers. They have the ability to hold the floor and they enjoy doing so immensely, but they ultimately lose their audience. That is because overtalkers of all stripes have one fatal flaw in common: they act as if there is nothing to be gained from hearing from others. The dial is cranked up too high on their strength—the ability to be articulate—and it’s stuck at that setting, effectively precluding any ability to listen.
In one study we 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. Likewise, they tended to neglect the opposing and complementary behaviors. For instance, managers who, using the Gallup Strengths Finder instrument, categorized themselves as “Achiever,” “Activator,” and “Command” tended to be rated by coworkers as too forceful and not empowering or participative enough. Conversely, as you would expect, those classifying themselves as “Developer,” “Harmony, and “Includer” were rated the opposite by coworkers. Don’t just discover your strengths, as Gallup recommends; also understand how you use them, including what happens when you overuse them.
The signs and symptoms of overplayed strength are everywhere and affect every leader. It’s not just that performance suffers; promising careers derail. Yet overuse of strengths is often overlooked because neither leaders nor their handlers are attuned to how strength can beget weakness. To be sure, not every weakness is a by-product of overused strength. Sometimes, it is a shortcoming that can be rectified by getting more experience or training or giving greater effort. But in every leader, in every person, there is at least one strong tendency that carries with it the risk of being too strong as well as a secondary risk of rendering the opposing tendency too weak. When this insidious lopsidedness takes hold in a leader—often very early in life—it can become chronic, deeply habitual, and in the worst cases virulent.
To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson: you must stand in terror of your strengths.
Meet the Author
Robert E. Kaplan is founding partner of Kaplan DeVries Inc., which specializes in assessing leaders for selection and for development. He lives in New York City with his wife, Rebecca.
Robert B. Kaiser is president of Kaiser Leadership Solutions, which provides innovative tools for improving performance, including the patented Leadership Versatility Index.
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