The greatest risks to leadership performance comes from overdone strengths

Many leaders derail not because of obvious weaknesses, but when strengths (or a combination of strengths) are overused or used in the wrong way or at the wrong time leading to unintended performance shortfalls. For example, a leader with courage as a strength might come across as too outspoken, reckless or rash in interpersonal situations requiring a more cautious and diplomatic approach. Similarly a compassionate leader might spend so much time and emotional energy helping others that they end up compromising their own productivity and emotional wellbeing.
Recent history is full of leaders who have failed not because of their weaknesses, but because of strengths that have gone into overdrive. For example, Margaret Thatcher’s strong, decisive and courageous approach to leadership in the latter stage of her premiership tipped over into autocracy while Cameron’s self-confidence and optimism blinded him to the strength of opposition from political rivals and Brexiteers during the recent EU referendum.

Despite the importance of managing these overdrive risks to leadership excellence, it is only a very small percentage of leaders (we would estimate less than 10%) who understand their overdrive risks and have strategies in place for dealing with them.

What triggers overdrive?

Triggers of overdrive can involve one or more of the following:

  • Stress and pressure
  • Habituated/automatic behaviour learned over the years
  • When leaders feel their core values are threatened
  • Company norms or expectations
  • Job and company changes (lack of understanding of new requirements)
  • Cultural factors
  • Other freedoms and constraints on leadership behaviour

Teams (and even whole companies) can overdo their strengths

Overdone strengths don’t only cause problems when individual leaders use their strengths ineffectively. They also occur when leadership teams have dominant strengths that are used inappropriately and negatively impact the company’s performance as a whole. For example, if the leadership team is too strongly execution and results focused, it is likely to deprioritize emotional intelligence and strong relationships with employees and customers. When this filters down to lower levels in the organisation, it can adversely impact the quality of customer experiences and the company’s ability to attract and retain high quality talent.

How can leaders deal with overdrive?

Every strength can be taken too far and can undermine performance if overdrive behaviors are left unchecked. Many leaders not only don’t understand their strengths well, but are also unaware of what happens when these are overused.
To help leaders reduce overdrive risks and use their strengths more effectively, it is important to:

  • Help leaders discover their strengths using an accurate and proven strengths assessment like Strengthscope®. Without a full understanding of their strengths, leaders will not be able to understand and reduce their overdrive risks.
  • Build awareness of the overdrive risks and the triggers behind the overdrive.
  • Help the leader find specific actions to ‘dial down’ the volume on their strength(s) in situations where it is prone to going into overdrive.
  • Ensure new habits are learned to counter overdrive behaviours that threaten to undermine results.
  • Develop support networks of leaders with different and complementary strengths so leaders can help one another by providing feedback and support to minimize overdrive risks.

Just like a professional athlete or performing artist, leaders need to be masters at fine-tuning their strengths to the situations and people they encounter.

 Questions leaders and managers can ask to help avoid overdrive: 

  1. Which strengths are going into overdrive and undermining my performance?
  2. In what situations does this overdrive occur most frequently?
  3. What will success look like if I am matching my strengths effectively with the needs of the situation?
  4. What habits and behaviours do I need to develop to reduce overdrive behaviours?

In order for leaders to achieve sustained excellence, they need to identify and reduce risks to their performance beyond obvious weaknesses. They need to learn to use their strengths with caution and care, avoiding overdrive by developing agility to match their strengths with the constant demands and challenges they face. To discover your strengths and how to manage these effectively, speak to us today.

Suggested reading

Optimize Your Strengths: Use Your Leadership Strengths to Get the Best Out of You and Your Team, 2016, James Brook & Dr Paul Brewerton, London: Wiley.