Lead from your Strengths

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By Patrick Ogburn 

Many times, leaders who attain a level of success by advancing through their chosen professional discipline reach a level where their strengths don’t seem to be getting them the results they expect at the next level. “What got you here won’t get you there” is the title of a recent business book by Marshall Goldsmith. The reason the title is so catchy is that it expresses an idea that’s been around for a while, and contains some intuitive truth.

Tone it Down?

Very often, strong leaders are told they need to “tone down” their strengths.  All of us have known leaders who seem to exhibit too much of a good thing, and we have shorthand names for some of the more common examples: “know-it-alls,” “flavor of the day” leaders who leave people bewildered as they rapidly jump from initiative to initiative, or the ever popular “control freak.” Clearly we could point out aspects of overused strengths in each of those leaders, and most would agree that they seem to need to “tone it down” in some way.  It’s often not a simple matter of toning down a strength. Rather, it’s more often a matter of better understanding and judiciously applying the real strength, and/or balancing that strength with new talents and perspectives that help to make more productive use of the best of who you are.

To illustrate the point, let’s look at a real story of a leader, a technical expert who became a leader of people. In this case Kelly (not his real name) is a Ph.D. scientist, and has analytical skills well beyond your typical leader. He clearly and quickly sees to the heart of most technical issues, effortlessly fashioning elegant solutions before most people understand the problem. Suddenly, when leading other competent people, his best skills don’t seem to be helping. His skilled and well educated employees don’t want his elegant solution — they want to create their own. Truth is, he probably wants them to do that also.

Misapplied Strength

Very often, this is the point at which some well meaning coach will say: “You need to throttle back your analytical and problem solving skills.” In fact, many times he had been told that very thing. Not so fast. While there is merit in the intentions, the suggestion is rooted in incomplete logic: “If a skill is getting in the way, don’t use it as much.” What this misses is that the skill or “strength” as we’ll call it, is not the issue. The issue is behavior. A subtle distinction, but it makes all the difference when making an adjustment. In this situation, the behavior of solving direct reports’ problems for them is one aftereffect of applying the problem solving strength – or more accurately stated: misapplying that strength.

OK – Now what?

The real question, especially for the practical minded among us, is “What do I do with this insight?” Here are five things you can do to move the needle:

  1. Do the hard work of understanding your unique mix of strengths. Sometimes by simply building self-awareness you will move in the right direction. There are many ways to do this, including multi-rater feedback, assessments, and dialogue with people who know you.
  2. Work towards balance. Very often, rather than simply “scaling back” your strengths, better results can be gained by identifying counterbalancing strengths, that, if applied, could help you be more effective. In our example, Kelly could be more effective by strengthening his receptivity behaviors. By intentionally eliciting and reinforcing solutions from others, he would be able to mitigate some of the counterproductive effects of overusing his own analytical ability.
  3. Look for ways to reframe and reapply your strengths. Sometimes the shift can be achieved by reframing the challenge to which you are applying your best self.  In Kelly’s case, rather than being a great scientist managing his team of technical experts, he can reframe his role as a leader of great technicians. First and foremost a leader of people, whose depth of knowledge in his field strengthens him as a leader. The shift is subtle, but can be profound, moving his focus onto developing others rather than showcasing his own skills.
  4. Build in mechanisms for ongoing feedback. Development is, by its nature, a challenging and somewhat risky endeavor.  Rarely do we get it right the first time. Find people you trust to give you meaningful feedback. If you have direct reports, cultivate dialogue with them that will allow them to give you meaningful feedback.
  5. Make sure that you don’t do this alone. Develop relationships with leaders you respect for their ability to lead others.  Use them to get meaningful, objective coaching.

Patrick Ogburn, CTC (Certified Tilt Consultant), SPHR (Senior Professional in Human Resources), is the President of “FullTilt Leadership,” a Leadership Consultancy (www.fulltiltleadership.com). He has developed leaders in Fortune 500 companies for the past 18 years, and began his career as a Military Pilot for the USAF. He is currently on the Board of the HR Leadership Forum of Western PA. He can be reached at Patrick @FullTiltLeadership.com or 412-567-7456.