Excel at What Doesn’t Come Naturally

4 min read ·


It may seem counterintuitive, but you don't only want to lead with your strengths. Here's why and what you can do about it.

People often ask me, "How can I become a great leader?" I usually put the ball back in their court.

"What do you do really well?" I ask. "Where do your strengths lie and how are you using them to bring out the best in those you lead?"

Answers to these kinds of strengths questions usually come naturally. I'll often hear responses that reflect the connected, big-picture thinking of someone like Steve Jobs or the flexible nature of Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, who mentions the need to "refine your idea constantly" in the book, Leadership and the Art of Surfing.

But one thing that often surprises leaders–and I've talked to CEOs and high-level executives at large and small corporations throughout the world–is when I ask about their weaknesses:

"What are your biggest challenge areas?" I ask. "What would you look to improve?" "How do you use the most difficult aspects of yourself in leadership?"

To truly be a great leader, you can't just take advantage of your strengths. You also have to recognize your weaknesses, and learn how to make them benefit your particular leadership style. This will help you come across as authentic and competent.

As the Harvard Business School management guru John Kotter states, "Great leadership doesn't mean running away from reality…sharing difficulties can inspire people to take action that will make the situation better."

The reality is, as a leader, you can't be a one-trick pony. Core components of leadership are understanding your charges, communicating to them, and inspiring them to action, so you need to ensure you speak their language and don't simply rely on your own go-to ways of working. To put it more specifically, a message geared to your own preference for logic and data, for instance, will not resonate to a person who thinks in a more visceral world of collaboration, gut instinct, and people power.

It certainly isn't easy to lead through your weaknesses, but when done well it can be a coup.

I like to use the example of my friend and associate Matt who runs his own consulting firm and is a renowned speaker on leadership. Matt is as right-brained as it gets, with strong preferences for 'social' and 'conceptual' thinking. You can notice this about him immediately, along with his gregariousness. That said, Matt finds it challenging to think or behave in a 'structural' or process-oriented way. He realized after putting in a lot of time doing the things he loved but not always seeing the results he craved that something needed to change. Instead of simply doubling down on his strengths, he more closely examined what he could do better when it comes to operations and he came away with two big ideas:

  • He brought in people around him (which he loves to do) who had strong preferences for structural thinking, and he now relies on them day-to-day.
  • He put his head down and set aside time to do all his structured tasks at once.

Now, every client gets a detailed agenda at Matt's speeches and every event features a focused follow-up list of action items to ensure that a tangible return from his work is high. You would never know that he has challenges with structured work and that's because he's made a clear effort to go beyond his strengths and lead with his challenges.

Harvard Business Review echoes this strategy, describing that to get to great leadership, you need to "do the equivalent of cross-training" by developing strengths as well as boosting difficult areas.

Here's how to identify where your biggest challenge may be and how to overcome it as a leader:

1. If you have trouble making the case for an idea, you may not love–or be good at–analytical thinking. Consider an idea you have and ask yourself "What issue does this solve?" and "What will the benefit be to our specific objectives?"

2. If you're challenged by details, you likely don't have a preference for 'structural' thinking. Focus on laying out the plan five steps further than you think you need to. Ask "What is every contingency that someone would need to know?"

3. If you don't always think about the ramifications decisions have on others, you may not have an natural inclination for 'social' thinking. Focus on gaining consensus for an idea from employees, customers, or shareholders before pushing it through and ask things like "How will this impact you?"

4. If you don't naturally think big picture, you probably are not a 'conceptual' thinker. Focus on brainstorming how one idea connects to another and think about what the ramifications are a year or two or five down the road.

5. If you're naturally quiet, make sure you've set a time to express yourself, and convey your thoughts and emotions to others. If you're more gregarious, be sure you don't talk over those you lead.

6. If you're a natural peacekeeper, don't be afraid to push your ideas. Don't worry, you won't seem like a bully if you do it respectfully. On the other hand, if you're competitive and driving, make sure you don't bowl over others, but look to build consensus if possible.

7. If you like things focused and straightforward, know that change is constantly happening, and prepare for it. Be open to switching the plan at times. But, if you readily welcome change, make sure you offer your constituents real, valuable rationale as to why something should shift.

We all have unique qualities that come naturally and things we do well. Great leadership is about recognizing what we don't always do quite as well and working to improve.

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