Oswald Letter

Strengths and Weaknesses

Those who’ve been around me much have probably heard me say, “Your greatest strength is also a weakness.”

It’s something I believe wholeheartedly. If a person has boundless energy, it may cause him to move too quickly and not pay attention to the details. If someone is an incredible strategic thinker, she may not have a great grasp of the tactical elements to implement the strategy. If you’re incredibly persuasive, you may use that talent to win people over to your point of view, even if it happens to be misguided.

There’s an unattributed quote, “Even moderation ought not be practiced to excess.” I think it carries a great message: Every strength, taken too far or used improperly, can become a weakness.

In today’s world, we hear a lot about knowing one’s self well. We’re reminded often that it’s critical to know your strengths and capitalize on them. I agree, but I’d also argue that this advice is only part of the story. Sure, it’s important to know your strengths and apply them in your career. There’s no denying that, even for a minute. But I believe it is equally critical to know how your strengths also can work against you.

Understanding how our strengths can become our weaknesses can be a critical path to self-improvement. Right now, our management team is going through a leadership development exercise. It’s a 360-degree analysis in which your peers, your direct reports, and your boss answer dozens of questions about how they perceive that you act in certain situations. What’s fascinating about the process is that there are no clearly right or wrong answers. It’s all about behaviors and tendencies.

No behavior or tendency is necessarily good or bad. For instance, the assessment may show that you are seen by your colleagues and direct reports to be a very high-control type of person. Doesn’t exactly sound like a positive, does it? But if you’re high-control, and also great at delegation, the control aspect becomes a real positive. You give responsibilities to others and then you consistently check their progress. You give them the ownership and then follow up to make sure it happens.  It’s “trust but verify” at work.

What I like about this assessment tool is that for every single trait that’s evaluated, they explain what the potential assets and liabilities are. For instance, one trait that you’re ranked on with this assessment is how strategic you are. Now everyone probably wants to be seen as strategic. Give me a high ranking on strategic thinking, and I’m likely to be pretty happy about it. But this tool reminds you that this strength also can be a weakness. The potential liabilities that are identified for people with high strategic scores include (1) a failure to see practical barriers, (2) an inadequate focus on results, (3) too much dependence on plans, and/or (4) reduced capacity for quick, tactical responses.

Wow, so much for being strategic! My point is that it’s critical to know yourself well. It’s certainly great if you know your strengths. But knowing how your strengths can hurt your performance is just as important. If you rely too much on your strengths, it can hurt you. If you are excessively a certain way, it will affect your performance in other areas that are necessary for success.

So you know your strengths and how they can actually be weaknesses as well. But we’re not done. It’s important that you consider your strengths and weaknesses within the organizational context. What role does my boss need me to play in order for the organization to be successful? Given the talents of my peers, which of my strengths should I focus on applying within the company? Even the experience, talents, and personalities of your direct reports will dictate which of your strengths you need to employ most often to make things work. If you’re really self-aware and in tune with those around you, you will be able to adjust which strengths you need to use most in order for the entire team to be successful.

So my argument is that knowing your strengths isn’t enough. You need to know how your strengths also can work against you and which of your strengths are most needed given your organization’s dynamics and those with whom you work. If you can get to the point where you are not only self-aware but also in touch with those you work with, you’ll be able to contribute more to the success of your organization than ever before.