Taking the time to be self-aware, to really consider one’s strengths and weaknesses, is not something most leaders do very often. They are usually too busy focusing on the seemingly more urgent tasks of any given day to take time for self-reflection.
Developing and practicing self-awareness may not get the attention it warrants, yet it is one of the most important things leaders can do to raise the performance of both themselves and their organizations. Developing awareness allows us to more clearly and vitally focus on building our strengths while intentionally mitigating and managing our weaknesses. Effective leaders must know and understand themselves. Thankfully, like many things, we can get better at self-awareness over time.
Relational and Operational Domains
We consistently perform at a high level in our areas of strength. Typically, we also gain satisfaction from our work in those areas. Our weaknesses, however, are those things we are not good at and typically don’t enjoy doing.
When I talk about strengths and weaknesses, I distinguish between two different domains: relational and operational. The relational domain has to do with how employees experience us as leaders on an interpersonal level. Relational strengths and weaknesses are reflected in how we interact with our peers and those we manage. This includes how we demonstrate skills like respect, empathy, listening, communication, and supportiveness.
I have found that when people talk about the strengths and weaknesses of their leaders, they are most often referring to these relational skills and shortcomings. However, it is also important to focus on the second domain: operational skills and abilities. This second domain reflects how competent we are in the practical aspects of managing our organizations. These are the areas related to things such as strategic planning, finance, human resources, and marketing.
Strength in Vulnerability
The process of naming one’s own weaknesses is an act of strength. People respect leaders who recognize that they are not perfect. They respect the honesty and courage it takes to admit weakness, particularly because so many leaders do not have the strength of character required for honest self-assessment. Even rarer is the leader who articulates these weaknesses.
By showing vulnerability, leaders establish trust and show that they are approachable and human. The act of showing vulnerability works to build solidarity between leaders and staff. Being honest about our weaknesses also helps us understand what we need most from those who work with us. When leaders act as though they are perfect at everything, they risk alienating their staff. This lack of self-awareness can be extremely costly to a leader. Nothing undermines your effectiveness as a leader faster than failing to admit mistakes and refusing to show you have weaknesses.
A leader emphasizing his or her own perfection has the potential to show staff that they are not needed, that the leader can take care of everything. But leaders are human. We are not perfect. We say and do things that we shouldn’t. When we fail to admit this, others won’t respect or follow us as leaders.
Focus on Both Strengths and Weaknesses
While the ability and desire to recognize one’s strengths and weaknesses is crucial, what we do with that knowledge is perhaps even more important. In recent years, there has been a strong push from various books to focus on improving strengths while not worrying as much about weaknesses.
The key premise of this belief is that each person’s greatest potential for growth lies in the areas of their greatest strengths. Thus, if a leader is focusing too much energy on improving weaknesses, he or she is taking time away from working on strengths. Most people would agree that mitigating weaknesses is harder than building on the strengths one already has.
While I believe the emphasis on strengths-based leadership has merits, especially in the operational domain, focusing only on strengths in the relational domain has its limitations. Relational weaknesses have the potential to be so detrimental – and potentially fatal – to the leader that simply managing around them will not suffice. Sometimes it is imperative to work on and improve areas of weakness. I firmly believe that with the right motivation, weaknesses can and should be improved.
This blog post is an excerpt from my book The Ordinary Leader: 10 Key Insights for Building and Leading a Thriving Organization. Available on Amazon.
Purchase my book, The Ordinary Leader: 10 Key Insights for Building and Leading a Thriving Organization
Looking for a Speaker? Learn more about my keynotes, retreats and workshops.
Listen to some of my talks on my YouTube channel.