The genesis of this article was a recent SmartBrief on Leadership email, with the following two articles highlighted at the top. In the first, “Great bosses know the glass is always half-empty”, Apptio CEO Sunny Gupta said, “Every single day, maybe 85% of things are going right, and there are 15% that aren’t going right…I’d rather focus on the 15% that are not going right, because that’s how you become great.”
In the article right below that, “How to Lead Like A Navy SEAL”, we’re emphatically told that, “Focusing on your weaknesses holds you back and limits your thinking…”
Since I believe everything I read on the internet, I started getting really confused. Which is it? Do you become great by focusing on the 15% that’s not going right, or should you ignore that and focus on your strengths?
So I did what I always do when I’m confused; I dug into the topic, I asked around, did some more research, read a couple of books—and that only got me more confused. I found some very smart people who made a compelling case that you should focus on your strengths, and I found some very smart people who said it’s very dangerous to do that.
F. Scott Fitzgerald said the sign of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in your head while still retaining the ability to function. Since I’m not that smart, I had to find a way to reconcile these two opposing ideas, and hence this roundabout way to what I think is the “right” answer.
The case for focusing on strengths
First, let’s look at the case for focusing on strengths. Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton, in their book, Now Discover Your Strengths, tell us that “Each person’s greatest room for growth is in the areas of his or her greatest strength.” Buckingham also says that the best performers are not well-rounded, they’re spiky.
Along the same lines, leadership expert John Maxwell said, “But do you know what happens when you spend all your time working on your weaknesses and never developing your strengths? If you work really hard, you might claw your way all the way to mediocrity! But you’ll never get beyond it.”
From a coaching perspective, focusing on strengths can foster a much more positive climate. People like to hear about what they’re doing well, and the opportunity to do more of the things that come naturally to them is certainly more appealing. Chip Bell, co-author of Managers as Mentors wrote me, “Jack, I would recommend always focusing on strengths…it keeps the betterment process free of negative energy, guilt and judgment!
My good friend Ross, who never took a management course in his life but runs a very successful small business, said that he learned the hard way that the 80/20 rule applies, and if you focus on the 20% of things that produce 80% of your results, you can’t go wrong.
Those are strong arguments, but let’s examine the flip side.
The case for focusing on weaknesses
Bad is stronger than good. Psychologist Roy Baumeister and others noted in a well-known paper that in this sometimes-perverse world, the bad often has a disproportionate impact on how others perceive you. I told the story in a previous post of a speech I attended where the speaker made one slight gaffe, unrelated to the quality of the bulk of his talk—yet it’s now the only thing I now remember about what he said. On a business level, one bad customer service incident can scuttle a long-term relationship.
And it’s not just perceptions. Legendary basketball coach Bobby Knight maintains that, “…mistakes determine the outcome of far more games that great plays do.” The problem with ignoring weaknesses is that one weakness can get you fired, or at least severely hold you back. George Patton almost did not get a chance to show his brilliance as a general because his aggressiveness, which was a huge strength in battle, also led him to slap a soldier suffering from battle fatigue. In a way, the 80/20 rule applies in reverse: one weakness can undo a lot of strength. Think of these as “flat tire” weaknesses. If you have a flat tire, you don’t compensate by pumping up the other three.
Strengths can become weaknesses. You can overdo your strengths by focusing too much on them. Rob Kaiser and Robert Kaplan caution that it is easy to overuse your strengths, because they work for you, so you get more comfortable with them—the old cliché about seeing nails everywhere when all you have is a hammer applies here. Assertiveness is a strength—except when it leads you to run over your colleagues and subordinates. As Aristotle said, any virtue has to be employed in a golden mean amount between not enough and too much.
And let’s not forget the Peter Principle: the strengths that get you promoted may raise you to incompetence because of the different demands of the new position. For instance, being analytical can be a strength in certain jobs, until you’re promoted and have to focus more on the people side.
You don’t always know if the door is locked unless you try the handle. Did you ever try something and get it wrong, and then conclude that you’re just not good at it? Some weaknesses are self-fulfilling: we may initially fail and then quit trying. But sometimes a door is wide open to opportunity and you don’t know it, In my own experience, I hated speaking in front of an audience, and preferred the solitary work of crunching numbers and analyzing financial statements. I also filled out a personality instrument and was told that I had absolutely no talent for sales. Then a friend coerced me into attending my first Toastmasters meeting, and that literally changed my life. For an even more dramatic example, read the story of what happened when a young Kansas boy tried something new.
So, which is it?
So if you can’t be great without building on your strengths, and weaknesses can get you fired, what should you do? In reading these opposing points of view, it’s hard to avoid thinking that most people take a position based on personal preference and then find ways to justify it. Is it as simple as playing to your own preferences, with optimists ignoring weaknesses and pessimists obsessing on them? Or is there a more objective way to look at it?
This may be an example of applying my own strength, but let’s take a “financial” approach and look at the question as a return on investment calculation. What’s the best investment of your time, effort and attention?
Step 1: Address your weaknesses first
Anthony Iannarino asked me, “Can’t we eliminate our weaknesses and play more to our strengths at the same time?”
While I think that may be possible, because losses tend to outweigh equivalent gains, it makes sense to begin with weaknesses. Dealing with weaknesses requires three steps:
The critical first step is to honestly identify and inventory your weaknesses, which isn’t as easy as it may seem. We tend to avoid or ignore evidence about our weaknesses or attribute failures to circumstances outside of ourselves. As Elon Musk said, “Always seek negative feedback, even though it can be mentally painful.”
Here’s where you apply an objective, “financial” approach. What will it “cost” to get there? What are the risks if it is not addressed? How much improvement is good enough? What’s the ROI, or the risk/reward ratio of your investment in time, effort and attention?
Depending on how you assess the weakness, you can either:
Step 2: Develop your strengths
This is where the fun begins. Secure in the knowledge that your weaknesses won’t hurt you, you can focus your energy and attention on developing your strengths and your full potential. For a strength, what is the potential payoff if it is developed further? What will it take to get there? How can you design your career so that your strengths can have maximum impact? Is there a level at which further development results in diminishing returns? How will you know?
So there you have it. Secure your base first, and then strive to develop your full potential. If you’re still confused, let me know—maybe my clarification skills are still weak!