I know – that doesn’t make sense, does it? If you’re scratching your head, wondering how something you’re good at could hold you back, read on.
As a professional coach, I spend a lot of time helping my clients develop their leadership strengths to achieve even higher levels of success and that makes sense. After all, you can spend a lot of time focusing on your weaknesses and at best you’ll become mediocre at them. But when you take what you’re good at to a whole new level, there are no limits to what you can achieve.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t be aware of your weaknesses and actively work to minimize them. However, when you consciously know and apply your strengths, they can be used to close your gaps.
Yet all strengths have shadow behaviours which have an uncanny ability to shoot you in the foot! Sometimes you’re aware of them, often you’re not.
Momentary lapses happen, even to the best of drivers
Think about the last time you were driving and started to change lanes (believing it was safe to do so), when another car suddenly appeared, honking its horn, seemingly out of nowhere! Heart pounding you swerve back to the lane you were in and realise the other car must have been hidden in the blind spot of your car’s rear vision mirror.
In this case you became aware of imminent danger and corrected your behaviour.
But how aware are you of your leadership blind spots?
As a highly successful, experienced and ambitious manager, Jane thought she was ready for executive promotion. Her ability to quickly grasp the big picture while being across the detail, was a recognised strength.
But Jane’s ability to ‘be across the detail’ felt like micro managing to her team. Putting in long hours she reviewed and corrected their work, priding herself on being able to answer any question her manager and his colleagues asked of her.
The downside of Jane’s ‘attention to detail’ strength was that her team weren’t motivated to learn and submit higher quality work. Knowing Jane would change it anyway, they didn’t think it was worth spending time getting it right.
While senior leaders saw her as a ‘legend’ with detail, they weren’t sure she was quite ready to be an executive. Her team had limited opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge to those higher up. Turnover was high as team members became increasingly frustrated by Jane’s seagull leadership style.
Failure to recognise and address her micro-managing shadow behaviour was shooting Jane in the foot. Acting with positive intent, she genuinely believed she was helping rather than hindering her team.
Becoming consciously aware of the shadow side of her ‘attention to detail’ strength was the first step.
Every Leadership Strength has Pros and Cons
Let’s take a look at the bright and shadow sides of three well-known strengths.
Ability to Engage and Influence
- Unites different stakeholders to achieve a common goal
- Approachable, friendly, relatable and easy to get on with
- Widely respected, open and engaging
- Can be everyone’s friend but may avoid conflict – needs to be liked by everyone
- Spends a lot of time building relationships but may not be as focused on doing and delivering
- Effectively manages up but may neglect own team’s needs
Perfectionist, High Achieving, Results Focused
- Delivers exceptionally high quality work
- Never gives less than very best effort
- Always exceeds expectations
- More focused on making work perfect than getting it done – may do more than necessary or procrastinate in the quest for perfection
- Can over-work and over-invest emotionally – can be controlling, lose perspective and unable to let go or delegate
- Consistently harder on self than anyone else will be, leading to high stress and possible burnout
Subject Matter Expert
- Knows their area of expertise inside out – is a highly reliable and credible source of information
- Understands the history and can explain why things are the way they are
- Highly aware of risks, issues, workarounds and stakeholder needs
- May not be receptive to new ideas – can be stubborn and closed minded
- Can be dismissive of ideas from people with different experience or expertise
- Knowledge hoarding – may resist sharing information so they feel indispensable and needed
Our strengths’ shadows may not always be evident or harmful but when they are, they negatively impact you and those you work with.
Tip #1 Know Your Strengths
Self-awareness is a core part of emotional intelligence. Make a list of your strengths and seek feedback from others to discover what you are good at. Strengths Finder exercises provide a simple way to do this.
Tip #2: Acknowledge Your Shadows
It’s OK, we all have less than desirable shadow behaviours! Knowing the downside of your strengths will help you become super aware of the unhelpful behaviours a strength can create.
Tip #3: Identify Your Shadow Triggers
Look back on situations where you may not have achieved your desired result. Inevitably there will have been a triggering event that lead to a shadow behavior. What was happening? Is there a pattern?
Tip #4: Seek Feedback and Act
Enlist the help of trusted colleagues to shine a light on your blind spots. Give them permission to ‘Call it out when/if I …’ to help you reign in unhelpful behaviours, before they become a problem.
Tip 5: Choose a Constructive Alternative
If you weren’t doing a shadow behavior, what would you choose to do instead? Write the better alternative on a ‘Note to Self’ card and take it with you to every meeting, placing it where you can see it. (Jane’s alternative was to ‘Trust My Team’).
Tip 6: Commit to Change
Changing old habits takes vigilance, action, time and persistence. Sure, there’ll be times when you slip back into the shadow side of your strength. But striving to do your best every day will result in steady progress.
Following these tips, Jane created a strategy to build her team’s brief writing skills and confidence. Within a few months she’d cut her document review time in half, listened actively and regularly took her team members to executive meetings to answer any detailed questions.
When I checked in with her manager he smiled and said, “You know what? Not only has Jane built trust and confidence in her team, my colleagues notice she’s become more a confident and relaxed leader. She’s ready for an exec role now.”
Successful leaders are highly aware of the shadow side of their strengths. They actively work to build their strengths by shrinking their shadows.
- To get started, simply pick one of your greatest strengths.
- Acknowledge its shadow behaviours and explore the impact they have on others.
- Commit to doing one thing every day to minimise your shadow behaviours and take that strength to a whole new level of success.
Caroline helps mid-career professionals and evolving organisations harness the power of change to achieve success in business, work and life.