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Posted by Berrett-Koehler Staff.
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When it Comes to Leadership, You Can Have Too Much of a Good Thing
San Francisco, CA -- We’ve all heard the advice to “Play to your strengths.” Drawing from years of working with top talent, leadership experts Robert Kaplan and Robert Kaiser warn leaders of the danger in taking their strengths too far.
In their new book FEAR YOUR STRENGTHS: What You Are Best at Could Be Your Biggest Problem (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, April 2013), published in partnership with the Center for Creative Leadership, Kaplan and Kaiser challenge current thinking and address a glaring oversight in the field of executive development - namely the lack of attention paid to the danger of leaders taking their strengths too far:
A leader's desire to be forceful and straightforward with direct reports becomes a tendency to be abusive and preemptory. A devotion to consensus-seeking breeds chronic indecision. An emphasis on being respectful of others degenerates into ineffectual niceness. The desire to turn a profit and serve shareholders becomes a preoccupation with short-term thinking.
The authors draw from years of working with senior leaders - including the CEO's of major corporations - and turn to recent history with examples that range from phenomenal (Steve Jobs of Apple) to ignoble (Jeffrey Skilling of Enron).
The premise‚ that your strengths can work against you, often strikes fear in the hearts of their executive clients. In a well-intentioned effort to build on the strengths that propelled them to the top, leaders can take those positive attributes too far and undermine their effectiveness. “The idea is unsettling. It’s chilling,” said one executive.
The authors conducted thousands of assessments of senior executives designed to determine when their strengths are betraying them. They draw on their data to identify four fundamental leadership qualities -- strategic leadership, operational leadership, forceful leadership, and enabling leadership -- each positive in and of itself but each of which, if overemphasized, can seriously compromise effectiveness.
Most leaders, they’ve found, are “lopsided:” they favor certain qualities to the exclusion of others without realizing it. The trick is to keep all four in balance.
It’s no wonder that the concept of strengths overplayed is overlooked in leadership development. Our culture’s growth mentality seems founded on the belief that if some is good, a lot must be great. This thinking is reinforced daily as leaders get evaluated with five-point rating scales where higher scores are more desirable. Neither our beliefs nor our tools warn leaders that more is not always better.
In contrast, Kaplan and Kaiser assess leaders by asking colleagues whether the leader does too much, the right amount, or too little of a given behavior relative to their job and organization. Feedback in this form is both insightful and instructive: “It never occurred to me that I could turn a strength into a weakness through overuse. But obviously, I need to tone it down,” remarked one executive.
Fear Your Strengths offers leaders a way to rein in their overused strengths that goes beyond simply trying to modify behavior. The book also offers a practical psychology of leadership, and shows how leaders must also make changes in their mindsets by addressing the biases, misconceptions, and strong feelings that drive them overboard in the first place.
About the Authors
Bob Kaplan is president of Kaplan DeVries Inc, specialists in assessing leaders for selection and for development since 1992. With Wilfred Drath and Joan Kofodimos, Bob originated executive coaching at the Center for Creative Leadership before that field came into existence. He built an early 360 survey (SKILLscope for Managers), and he came up with the idea for a different breed of 360, the patented Leadership Versatility Index, which he and Rob Kaiser developed and commercialized together. He has published three other books, as well as numerous articles in publications like Harvard Business Review and Sloan Management Review. An honorary senior fellow at the Center for Creative Leadership, he has a B.A. and Ph.D. from Yale University.
Rob Kaiser is an advisor, author, and expert on the subject of leadership. He is the president of Kaiser Leadership Solutions, a provider of assessment tools that set a new standard for innovation and impact, such as the patented Leadership Versatility Index. Rob is a prolific writer whose work on leadership, executive selection and development, and assessment has been widely published. His books include Filling the Leadership Pipeline, The Perils of Accentuating the Positive, and, with Bob Kaplan, The Versatile Leader. Rob is also a highly regarded public speaker who is often asked to deliver his unique, engaging, and provocative presentations to professional audiences around the world. He has an M.S. in Organizational Psychology from Illinois State University.
The Center for Creative Leadership is a top-ranked, global provider of executive education. Founded in 1970, it annually serves more than 20,000 individuals and 2,000 organizations including more than 80 of the Fortune 100 companies across the public, private, nonprofit and education sectors.