When specific leadership strengths are emphasized, they’re often overused. This is the downside of strengths-based leadership development. It doesn’t take into account how the very strengths that leaders depend on can be detrimental to organizations and to the people they manage.
Who hasn’t had to work for a leader who was exceptionally brilliant at operational details, that they ended up being micromanaged to to point of dysfunction? Or for a supportive boss who asked for everyone’s input but delayed making timely decisions? In the work I do in organizations, I see these ineffective patterns everywhere.
Two authors I find helpful in understanding how leadership strengths can actually backfire are Robert B. Kaiser and Robert E. Kaplan who write in their book Fear Your Strengths: What You Are Best at Could Be Your Biggest Problem (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2013).
Some leaders don’t recognize their own strengths. Such leaders underestimate their assets, downplaying their efforts or deflecting positive feedback. They fail to understand and own the extent of their impact on others.
What I observe is that successful leaders recognize and accept their talents. They learn how to fine-tune their strengths, becoming self-aware and attuned to appropriate context. This is where coaching pays big dividends.
Management assessment tools are usually ill-equipped to pick up on overplayed strengths. Feedback and performance reviews are commonly structured on scales that range from “never” to “sometimes” to “always” (or “doesn’t meet expectations,” “meets them” or “exceeds them”). Assessment scales rarely indicate that a leader exercises too little, the right amount or too much of a quality.
Overplayed strengths are often at the root of career failures. Analyses of derailed leaders show they often rely excessively on qualities linked to past successes as individual contributors but less relevant to current roles as leaders or managers.
“What got you here won’t get you there,” as Marshall Goldsmith famously stated in his book by the same name (Hachette Books, 2007).