Learn to Fear Your Strengths to Become a Better Leader
By Robert E. Kaplan and Robert B. Kaiser
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 typically are rated as not meeting expectations, meeting expectations, or exceeding expectations. In coworker feedback questionnaires, popularly known as 360s, managers typically are 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.
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.”
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.
Aristotle postulated that what is good, virtuous, and effective in thought and action is the midpoint between deficiency and excess. Aristotle’s precept often has 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 10-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 over-relied 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.
Leaders often have a hard time acknowledging their strengths in the first place. 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 also have 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 hyper-intense executive finally realized, “I don’t have to give up my fastball. 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 “Fear Your Strengths: What You Are Best at Might Be Your Biggest Problem” (Berrett-Koehler, 2013) 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 our book offer the leader added leverage for making that move.
Excerpt from “Fear Your Strengths: What You Are Best at Might Be Your Biggest Problem” by Robert E. Kaplan and Robert B. Kaiser (Copyright 2013). Reprinted with permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, CA.
Bob Kaplan is the founder of Kaplan Devries, which was established in 1992 to specialize in consulting and research on executive. He began consulting to executives and conducting research on leadership development in the early 1980s at the Center for Creative Leadership. He is the coauthor of “The Versatile Leader” and author of two commercial 360-degree instruments: SKILLscope for Managers and, along with Rob Kaiser, the Leadership Versatility Index. Kaplan has a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior from Yale University.
Rob Kaiser is president of Kaiser Leadership Solutions. He is co-author with Bob Kaplan of “The Versatile Leader” and a co-developer of the Leadership Versatility Index. Kaiser also coaches individual managers and their teams. Prior to starting his own firm, Kaiser was partner at Kaplan DeVries. He has an M.S. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology from Illinois State University.
The Center for Creative Leadership is a global provider of executive education. Founded in 1970, it annually serves more than 20,000 individuals and 2,000 organizations, including more than 80 of the Fortune 100 companies across the public, private, nonprofit, and education sectors.