Overplaying Your Strengths

The hidden weakness that derails leaders

In a recent interview with The New York Times, James P. Hackett, the president and CEO of Steelcase, recalled a meeting in 1994 with J.W. “Bill” Marriott Jr., Marriott Corp.’s chairman of the board. Hackett was a young chief executive, 39 years old, seeking wisdom and guidance from the seasoned Marriott.

“I had been struggling with this notion of identity,” said Hackett. “What does a CEO look like and feel like? As we were talking, I remember being struck by the look in [Marriott’s] eyes. I understood in that moment that he knew who he was. I remember this like it was yesterday. Since then, the [CEOs] I’m most impressed with have [that same] sense of peace and self-awareness.”

Hackett’s intuitive observation is borne out by research. A multitude of studies have pointed to executive self-awareness as the bedrock of personal and corporate performance. The work of influential psychologist Albert Bandura links self-awareness to self-efficacy, which he defines as a person’s perception of his or her own ability to succeed in specific situations. In general, Bandura contended, the more you know about yourself, the more likely you are to feel confident in taking things on and seeing them through.

According to Anthony K. Tjan, coauthor of “Heart, Smarts, Guts, and Luck”: “In my experience and in the research my coauthors and I did for our book, there is one quality that trumps all, evident in virtually every great entrepreneur, manager and leader. That is self-awareness. The conviction — and yes, often the ego — that founders and CEOs need for their vision makes them less than optimally wired for embracing vulnerabilities or leading with humility. This makes self-awareness that much more essential.”

In a recent Korn/Ferry International report, “Survival of the Most Self-aware,” author J. Evelyn Orr, director of intellectual property research and development, concluded that “when all things are equal, self-awareness is a key trait that explains why some business leaders succeed when others derail. Self-awareness is knowing your strengths and limitations, the willingness to seek and act on feedback, the ability to admit mistakes, and the tendency to reflect and apply personal insights.”

Unfortunately, most leaders fall short of that ideal. They have a distorted perception of themselves that can manifest itself in a number of ways: a tendency to overestimate skills or underestimate shortcomings (known as “blind spots”), or an inability to recognize an untapped capacity (known as a “hidden strength”). Based on feedback from more than 2,700 professionals, Orr’s report indicated that 79 percent had at least one blind spot and 40 percent had at least one hidden strength.

Lack of self-awareness takes its most insidious form, however, when leaders have an accurate sense of their talents, but routinely overuse or misapply them, turning them into weaknesses. Research shows that high performers in all fields, especially when under stress, instinctively double down on the core attributes that made them high performers in the first place. Michael M. Lombardo and Robert W. Eichinger, cofounders of the talent management consultancy Lominger, were among the first to link this phenomenon to executive dysfunction in their book “Preventing Derailment: What to Do Before It’s Too Late.” They pointed out that poor executive performance is often not due to a weakness, but rather to a strength in overdrive: extreme confidence careening toward arrogance, detail orientation deteri-orating into micro-management, forcefulness sliding into abusiveness, consensus-building degenerating into indecision.

This leader’s compulsion to over-rely on strengths is more than just an occasional phenomenon. For many, it becomes habitual and ingrained — a default position. In fact, according to Drs. Robert and Joyce Hogan, leading thinkers in the area of personality assessment and organizational leadership, overused strengths constitute leaders’ most common flaw, and the most dangerous. The research, they say, draws a consistent conclusion: When leaders collapse, it is  almost invariably the result of overplaying the characteristics that initially contributed to their success.

“Not only does overusing one’s strength corrupt and degrade its value,” said Robert E. Kaplan, coauthor of the new book, “Fear Your Strengths,” “but it begets weakness in yet another way. By embracing their strength as the only truth, these executives consequently ignore an equal and opposing strength. For instance, a leader who adopts an automatic and uncompromisingly forceful stance in all circumstances will be unlikely to be tuned in to enabling the efforts of others. The result is lopsided leadership: too much of one thing, made worse by too little of its complement. Versatile leadership arises only from acknowledging that each approach is a half-truth and from embracing both.”

Many leaders know this on an intuitive level, but they tend not to accept it in practice. In their careers, they have seen the efficacy of their strengths and have come to rely upon them heavily as a source of security. When faced with the prospect that the very intensity that fueled their rise to the top can be sabotaging their effectiveness, they are often panic-stricken at the thought of needing to ease up. Not surprisingly, then, development efforts that focus solely on prescribing behavioral changes or counterbalances to overuse have limited success because they do not address the leader’s underlying mindset — the cognitive, emotional and motivational roots of the imbalance.

“A leader’s mindset will throw off his form just as an athlete’s does,” said Robert B. Kaiser, who coauthored “Fear Your Strengths” with Kaplan. “Correcting it is far more challenging than simply shoring up a deficiency. It requires intellectual honesty and the courage to rummage in the attic of your mind.” Unless the leader’s mindset and behavior are explored in concert, he will not become aware of the self-defeating assumptions, impulses and emotional reactions that drive his excesses and will therefore not have the tools to modulate his behavior.

“Modulate” is the operative word. Indeed, some in the field of leadership development are gravitating away from thinking in terms of absolute strengths and weaknesses. “There is no such thing as an unqual-ified strength,” wrote Morgan W. McCall Jr., a professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business and an expert on the topics of executive development and derailment. “Any effective development strategy will have to acknowledge that what matters are combinations of strengths and weaknesses as they manifest themselves in specific situations.”

All behaviors, then, are seen objectively as competencies that have a wide spectrum of application — they are only potential strengths or potential weaknesses, depending upon the degree to which and the circumstances in which they are brought to bear. In other words, said author Kaplan, “There is no fixed setting on the dial for the proper use of a virtue.”