Focus On Your Strengths?

It's popular advice these days to "focus on your strengths," and not worry about your weaknesses. The theory goes that we should just focus on the things that we are good at and tailor our jobs to those strengths. If your not good at finance and looking at a balance sheet makes your eyes glaze over but you are great with customers and can't wait to get up in the morning and sell something to someone, focus on selling and leave the rest to someone else, right?

In general, this advice is sound and it may work for most jobs, but many leaders don't have the luxury to be that specialized. The higher you rise in an organization, the more broad your skill set needs to be and the more magnified your shortcomings become. A weakness that didn't matter earlier in your career may matter now, or it may matter at the next level of your career.

This is not to say that you have to work on every weakness you have--you only have to work on the ones that matter. I can't dunk a basketball or hit a curve; should I spend a lot of time working on those weaknesses? Of course, not; I don't play basketball or baseball so those weaknesses don't matter. If I were a minor league baseball player who wanted to go pro but I was weak on hitting curves; you better believe I should work to improve on that weakness. Effective career management, and effective management and leadership, is dependent on both capitalizing on your strengths and overcoming relevant weaknesses.

There is a simple reminder I always give to my clients--you get promoted for your relevant strengths and you get fired for your relevant weaknesses. You have to pay attention to both.

The Empty Cup

Some people already know everything, and are more than happy to let you know it, even when they claim to be asking your opinion.

In the Zen Buddhist tradition, there is the parable of the tea cup that can help us from being one of those people.

A scholar from the west knocks on the door of a venerable zen master and announces, "I would like to learn from you."

The zen master invites him in and the scholar proceeds to tell the master everything he knows about zen. The master waits for his visitor to stop, but he just keeps going. In time, the master starts to prepare tea. He boils the water, puts the tea in the pot and waits for it to steep; he prepares the cups. All the while, the scholar talks.

The zen master begins to pour tea for his guest, slowly and carefully. When the tea reaches the brim, the master continues pouring and the tea runs down the side of the cup and across the table. The scholar leaps back to avoid the hot tea and says, "Stop! It's already full."

The zen master stops pouring, looks at the scholar and quietly says, "Your mind is like this cup; it is already full. You must first empty your cup if you want to taste my tea."

What Leaders Read; or, Management as a Liberal Art

It's always interesting when a recurring theme pops up in coaching sessions with different clients. In separate meetings over the past week, three senior vice presidents raised the topic of books and what books, or kinds of books, leaders should read. One also asked, "In your experience, are most senior leaders voracious readers? I get different answers when I talk to people."

I thought about it for a moment, and responded that not every senior leader I knew was a voracious reader, but the most successful among them were voraciously curious and they sought to expand their understanding of the world whenever possible. A broad base of knowledge about the world simply equips you to be better armed to address the challenges that come your way. 

Peter Drucker famously wrote that management
... deals with action and application; and its test is its results. This makes it a technology. But management also deals with people, their values, their growth and development—and this makes it a humanity…. Management is thus what tradition used to call a 'liberal art': 'liberal' because it deals with the fundamentals of knowledge, self-knowledge, wisdom, and leadership; 'art' because it is practice and application. Managers draw on all the knowledge and insights of the humanities and the social sciences—on psychology and philosophy, on economics and on history, on the physical sciences and on ethics. ("The New Realities")

The "Leadership Personality," Part 2

An interesting piece of feedback arrived after my last blog, The "Leadership Personality." A correspondent felt that my view was a "bit too relativistic," that "prosocial, humble, and honest are better than narcissistic and disagreeable in my book- even if their financial results are better." Frankly, I couldn't agree more, and the reader may have viewed my post as out of context with what I've written before. It raises some questions that should be addressed, however. 

My view that adaptability is perhaps the foundational personality quality of leadership success is, I think, still valid and does not assume that any behavior is acceptable as long as you get short-term results. Adaptability is a long-term strategy, by which I mean that a leader should be adapting to their environment in ways that will work over the long term, not just in the moment. A leader can browbeat subordinates into submission and get better financial results over the short-term, but he or she will quickly lose effectiveness by demotivating the workforce and driving away the good people who can get jobs elsewhere. Some qualities do work better over the long-term, and are thus more adaptive; others may work work well in the short-term but be less adaptive.

The "Leadership Personality"

Don't be a Dodo

During a workshop the other night I was asked what personality type I encountered most frequently in my work with leaders as an executive coach. After reflecting for a moment, I responded that while I've worked with many good leaders of each type, I seem to end up with working most frequently with Eights, Nines, and Threes. There was some surprise to this, and people started saying things like, "Really? I thought there would be more _____s." I was quick to point out that there is no ideal leadership personality and that were many reasons why I may have encountered this distribution, including pure chance or the fact that most of my work comes from word of mouth and people are inclined to take suggestions from people who are like them. 

The truth is, I don't think that any personality style is necessarily better suited to leadership than others, and that there is no ideal personality profile for a leader. Leadership success has many factors, and personality is only a part of the picture. I've seen extreme introverts who were successful and extreme extroverts who were effective leaders; I've seen very charismatic leaders succeed and fail, and leaders with no charisma at all succeed and fail.  I've also seen leaders who were highly effective in one set of circumstances fail miserably in another.

Charisma, and How to Get More of It

Do leaders need to be charismatic in order to be successful? I don't think so, but charisma certainly helps and I think it is possible for everyone to increase their "charisma quotient." Thus, those who want to lead would do well to pay a bit of attention to this quality.

The original Greek roots of the word charisma refer to a gift of grace given by the divine, and this may have led to the commonly held view that, when it comes to charisma, you either have it or you don't. Anecdotally, we all know people who seem to have that X-factor that draws attention and makes people want to follow; when they enter a room, it feels like two people have entered. We also know people who seem to completely lack that X-factor; when they enter a room it feels as if two people left. These experiences with other people can reinforce the "have it or not" view of charisma.

This view is unfortunate because it often stops people from trying to become more charismatic, which then hampers the fulfillment of one's leadership potential. The rest of this post explores how we can overcome this bias and work on increasing your charisma quotient.

Some Thoughts on Leadership

(Note: This is an excerpt from a much longer article called "Awareness to Action Leadership," which can be found here.)

Working with leaders, you can’t help but think a lot about leadership. Over the years I’ve developed a lot of opinions on the topic, and perhaps gained a few insights. In this post, I’d like to introduce the approach to leadership that I take with my clients, something I call “Awareness to Action Leadership.”
It’s important to define terms, so let me define what I mean by leadership. There are as many definitions of leadership as there are leaders and people writing about leaders, but this one works for me: successful leadership is the act of influencing others to effectively achieve a desired result consistently and over time. There are a couple of assumptions implicit in this definition, namely that leadership involves the engagement of others, that good leadership improves circumstances, and that in order to get results over time one must lead in a way that makes others want to follow. Thus, treating people well is inherently more effective than treating them poorly.

I’d like to start with some opinions I’ve formed:

There is no secret formula.
Leadership is very context specific; what works in one situation for one person may not work in another situation, or even for a different person in the same situation. Effective leadership requires adaptability to the variables of individuals, contexts, and goals. Circumstances may require a leader to call upon any of a very long list of skills, competencies, attitudes, or behaviors. The challenge is that we can never know in advance what those variables may be at any given time. Thus, a leader must be a student of leadership, continually improving his or her abilities, and constantly monitoring the environment for cues as to what abilities need to be developed. As Charles Darwin wrote, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” Nowhere is this more true than in leadership.

Because there is no secret formula, we should always beware those who promise a secret formula. If a consultant tells you that his or her list is complete or “necessary and sufficient,” walk slowly to the door.

Leaders are “born” and “made.”