Recently when speaking with a respected leader I said, “As much I was would like to see myself otherwise, I’ve concluded that [this] isn’t one of my strengths.”
The particular trait (the “this”) we were discussing is irrelevant, except to say that while it is not essential to successful leadership, it is something our culture highly respects.
It look me a long time to get here: the place of being able to admit, without shame, that I have areas of non-strength, or weakness.
For much of my life I had difficult time with the idea of not being good at everything. I’ve wanted to excel in every domain. I’ve not wanted to disappoint anyone. This can be a dangerous place to live—and as a result, I’ve said yes to things that I should have declined, taken on projects that I didn’t have an aptitude for, and ironically, in my effort to disappointment no one, have more than once disappointed others, and myself.
This tendency is kind of like multitasking, which research has shown to reduce effectiveness and increase errors significantly.
Thankfully I’ve been slowly freed from that, and become more comfortable with who I am uniquely created to be—without the discouraging baggage of unrealistic expectations.
It has been an achingly slow journey, and I’m far from arrived. Self-awareness, in particular awareness of one’s weaknesses or in-aptitues, isn’t something that usually happens by default. It requires the pursuit of feedback, openness to hard messages, and humble curiosity. Self-deception occurs more easily than self-awareness, especially in this domain of strengths and weaknesses. I’ve dealt with enough of the consequences that accompany working out of those non-strengths to appreciate the value of realistic clarity in this area.
Some people in my life (my wife!) know that I’ve at times been unwelcoming to such sharpening.
Counseling helped. Weekly sessions with a counselor in 2015 allowed me to release some of enslavement of performance-based identity. (In other words, the recognition that I am not what I do, or have done. My identity is fixed and established—based on the goodness of God, not on my victories or failures.)
Intentional conversations with friends—the ones who ask pointed questions—help a lot. I have a few of these intimate friendships, and am so much richer because of it. (I love you guys. You know who you are.)
Purposefully seeking out refining feedback is essential. But asking for the feedback is only half the battle, it must be carefully received.
Four years ago I gave a short survey to five people in my professional world, requesting candid feedback about my strengths and weaknesses. I was disappointed that only one of the five filled out the section about the weaknesses. Rather than taking this as a sign that they didn’t see any weaknesses (I knew they did), I saw their reluctance as a failure on my part to emphasize how badly I valued and would protect their feedback. Speaking candidly to someone about their failures or weaknesses is a risk because it often disrupts their comfortable self-perception. My lesson there was that I failed to explicitly ensure those people that it was safe to give me that negative feedback—not only safe, but that I would receive it as a precious gift.
Strong thanks to my friend Jason for introducing me to a powerful leadership development tool called the Leadership Circle Profile. This 360-degree survey of a dozen people in my work life provided a powerful assessment of my strengths and weaknesses that I’ll be digging into for many months. There’s an associated book called “Mastering Leadership,” which Jason calls “the best book on leadership outside of the Bible.”
Thumbs up for books. I read constantly, and the more I’ve absorbed in the leadership, organizational, personal growth, biographical genres, the more fluidly I’ve been able to see the world, life’s challenges, and myself through a lens layered with wisdom beyond my own experience. Read!
Back to the start. When I said to this certain leader that I’m not strong in a particular area that I know he values, and I did it without a layer of explanations and disclaimers. I just said it, let it hang, and was okay with it. It wasn’t intended to be a big moment, but in hindsight it was: it felt like freedom.
Final thought. We’ve heard this before: that good is the enemy of the great. This idea is a positive driving force that moves our the focus away from the weaker areas and onto the strengths. Flopping around in the so-so areas keeps us away from those spaces where we can truly contribute with excellence, and that’s where our attention should be.
When you spread yourself too thin out across spaces beyond your unique strengths, you run the risk of betraying your calling, losing sight of yourself, and robbing the world of the great gifts within you. Time is short. So stay focused on the right things—the world needs your best.