When Strengths Become Weaknesses

“Our strength grows out of our weaknesses”
–Ralph Waldo Emerson






To start the day today, I responded to a tweet from @ellyhart on Twitter concerning weaknesses.  The fundamental question was this: should you focus on your weaknesses, or ignore your weaknesses and use your strengths to your fullest?

In a very interesting way, I’m fascinated that an innocent question like this at the beginning of my day would become the key point of my day!

One compelling argument is that you should become aware of your weaknesses so that you can address them through training or other form of compensation, such as working with another person with different strengths than you.  Another argument is that if you focus on your strengths and develop them further, your weaknesses become unimportant.

While I was in NASA’s leadership development program, I encountered a very successful leader who talked about focusing on one’s strengths – do even better what you do well.  This, in turn, turned me onto further research into this topic, which led to an evaluation of my own strengths.  Here is what I discovered about my strengths through this process:

  • Futuristic – envisioning an exciting future and pointing the direction to make that future a reality (“Wouldn’t it be great if…”)
  • Maximizer – excellence is the greatest reward
  • Ideation – discovering new ideas and concepts
  • Adaptability – reacting to the situation at hand and embracing change instead of running away from it (“go with the flow”)
  • Deliberative – gathering data to ensure we’ve covered our bases

I looked at these for a bit and asked a very logical question: when would these become a liability, or a weakness?  This question is derived from the concept that a strength misapplied or over-emphasized can become a weakness.

  • Futuristic – concerned more about the future instead of the here and now.
  • Maximizer – very high standard of excellence; only the best, optimal solution is acceptable.
  • Ideation – like the kid in the candy store, gathering ideas and concepts but not doing anything with it.
  • Adaptability – what is your position? (take a stand!)
  • Deliberative – analysis by paralysis: need more data.

This leads me to today and a situation that happened with my team.

We’ve been working very hard on a very challenging aspect of our strategic planning.  We have to solve this problem to move on, because much of our strategy is dependent on what we decide here.  It’s been a slow process of discovery, debate, questioning, and assessment.  While my team was working on this, I felt I had stumbled into a particular approach that would provide a framework for organizing our decision in a way that would make it very objective and sellable to the executive at NASA Headquarters.  I felt strongly that this approach was it, and furthermore that my interpretation of how to implement it was the right way.

Big mistake.

What did I do here?  I locked onto a solution as being “the way” and over-defended it when questioned.  This was clearly a case of a Maximizer incorrectly applied.  We argued, I defended, and we made no progress.  Afterwards, I reflected on the situation and realized that my role as the leader is not to maximize the solutions of the team, it is to maximize the performance of the team.  I focused on the wrong element to maximize, and as a result a strength became a weakness.

So, what I believe is that one’s greatest weaknesses are one’s greatest strengths misapplied.  Therefore, I believe that if you know your strengths, you also know your greatest weaknesses. Finally, I offer that proper application of your strengths avoids your greatest weaknesses.

I’d love to hear what you think of this.

When Strengths Become Weaknesses