Sunday, April 26, 2015

When Your Strengths Blindside You

I have had an epiphany.

Not a world changing, best thing since sliced bread kind of sudden enlightenment, but one that might help with my own leadership.

One of the books I am reading is  The Principal: Three Keys to Maximising Impact  by Michael Fullan.  It is a follow up from his book Whats Worth Fighting for in Principalship (also a jolly good read) and in it, he further defines what he sees as leadership, what needs to change and how these changes can make an impact on the whole system - not just one school at a time.  It is an easy read, and one that challenges our notions of instructional leadership vs being a learning leader.

It is not the book itself that I want to write about this time, but a book called Fear Your Strengths by Kaplan and Kaiser, that Fullan cited.  In their book they talk about how sometimes in leadership, what was once your finest quality, and usually the very quality or qualities that saw you fly up the corporate or leadership ladder early in your career, can sometimes be your biggest downside.  They talk about how that quality or qualities that you are known for, can also become your biggest barrier or blindspot.  An example they use is, if you are known for being deeply passionate this can lead to you becoming overbearing.  

If we apply this thinking to instructional leadership, Fullan makes the point that in the current climate facing education, it could be an easy trap for leaders to fall into, as they try hard to be all the things needed to be to meet the competing demands of a difficult educational world.  In that situation, it could be easy to go overboard as an instructional leader and to turn into a micromanager.  An example would be an over emphasis on data analysis to the detriment of relationships with your teachers!  However, as a learning leader, one would know what their strengths are, and conversely, look to ensure that those strengths were not over utilised to the point they became a weakness.  

It really struck a chord with me.  Especially the deeply passionate!  That is me to a capital T.  It occurred to me that actually, sometimes my 'deeply passionate' strength would come across as over zealous and overbearing to some people.  Not on purpose, but of course, if you don't stop and look at yourself, including what your strengths might look like if they went to the 'dark side', then you would never know how to counter balance them.   

When I reflected on this, it gave me cause to stop and think about what my own strengths are and what it might look like if I was too enthusiastic in how I displayed those strengths.  

Herein lies the epiphany.   

Too much of one thing can lead to a lack of doing whatever is its counterbalance, and as a result, this will have a less than positive impact on your leadership and what you are wanting to achieve.  

To be honest, I feel a bit naive.  All these years in leadership and I have not really looked at what the adverse reaction to my strengths might be.  Seems so logical when I stop and analyse it.  I know my strengths and I know my weaknesses - but to link the two and make the correlations - that was the missing link! 

Just like the one hit wonder music on our airwaves that we tire of easily, so too is the risk of overdoing our greatest strength.   Make sure you don't over plug your 'song' to the point that it is overly loud or played to the point people are sick of it.   Modulate you volume switch!  Learn when to turn it down or to turn it off altogether.   (note to self - don't just write it - do it)

It is important to know your strengths - if you don't know your strengths then you have no way to calibrate or modulate them with what you need to counterbalance. Overdoing is rated as just as ineffective as under-doing!  

If you are not sure where to start in terms of what your strengths are and what to do about them should they become a weakness, begin with these 6 ideas. 

1. Find out your strengths. You can look at your last 360 appraisal (if you have done one) or use one of the many different leadership and personality tools out there (a quick google search will net you with many links from Myers-Briggs to Gallup).  If all else fails - ask your team. 

2. Find out which of your strengths you overdo - and the best way to do this is to get really good feedback from the people you work with.   Sometimes being direct is a fabulous strength, but it becomes your achilles heel when you are too direct and the perception is that you are a big bossy boots!

3. Find a sounding board - this can either be another leader in your team or a person you trust, who can tell you if you go overboard.  For example, I can be quite direct at times, and sometimes I might not notice I have been too direct.  I appreciate if people tell me if they feel I was a bit blunt.  I especially rely on my Senior Leadership Team to tell me if my 'passion' is too passionate or if I am being 'over the top' - I might not always know, and I live by the mantra that I can not fix it if I do not know about it.  Whilst you can tell people to 'let you know' when you are in a position of leadership, the fact you are in a position of 'power' (perceived or real) places a strain on some people who might feel it is too hard to tell you directly.  It is important to be aware of this, so finding someone in a similar role to you can be helpful, to play as your 'sounding board'.

4. Figure out what the tell tale signs are when you 'overdo' your strength.  Is there a physical response?  ( do you feel the tension in your shoulders, etc) If you can find your triggers then you can flick into self constraint mode and use some will power.   I suspect this is not something I am particularly good at, or I would throw out some more sage advice!  If I find the magic answer to not falling into the trap of 'overdoing' by understanding my own triggers I will write a book on it and let you all know!! In the meantime, suffice to say, talk to your loved ones and friends initially as those who know you well will know what your signs of over playing your strengths look like - once you know you can start to work out when you do it.  I would suggest you ask them for examples as concrete examples help you learn far more effectively than 'oh you know how you get angry when you are passionate about an issue and people don't care as much as you!'.  In that situation you are more likely to be 'oh, I didn't know I really, does it look angry?  Ohhh?' A concrete example might help you more than a vague generalisation.  (that is often the issue with 360 appraisals but that is another post for another day when I am feeling more brave)

5. Increase what you don't do enough of.  Find out what things people would like you to do more of, and start to do more of those.  First look at what holds you back from doing more of something.  If fear holds you back, figure out what that is and ask yourself 'what holds me back'.  Will power is helpful here as well - force yourself to do more of what you find difficult.  You may be surprised by how positive the outcome is!

6. Look at your mindset.  A fixed mindset in this situation is that pulling back on a strength might seem counter intuitive.  After all, you got where you are by being strong, passionate and by displaying your particular strength - how might this now be causing issues?  With a growth mindset, you would be looking at the situation dispassionately, realising that pulling back sometimes is not a bad thing.  Looking at something from the perspectives of someone else is always helpful.  For example, you might be a big believer in innovation and doing the 'next best thing' that opportunity passes your way, not realising that when you do that all the time, your team can't handle the constant changes.  Stopping and looking at continuity, consistency and what you might have to drop to implement something new might be the change you need to tone down your strength so that it is manageable for all the team.

In an ideal world all of us would be able to read the situation just 'right' and apply the right skill, value or action.  Alas, the world is not at all perfect and as such knowing which strength we need to tone down and which strength we need to turn up, is a tricky balance of experience, quality feedback and an ability to leave our ego at the door.   Being able to counter balance our strengths by knowing when to use them wisely, all the while improving our weaknesses by tuning them in and up, is a leadership skill worth honing.  Better to know than allow your strengths to blindside you! 

For an infographic on 8 strengths and their associated weaknesses that I created to assist you - click here. 

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