The greatest leadership risk of all

So what is the greatest leadership risk of all? It’s not the stuff that leaders do badly or don’t do at all, despite what you might think. It’s not having a lack of skills in certain areas, although of course that can be a problem all of its own. No, the greatest leadership risk of them all is the dreaded strength in overdrive.

So if a strength is a quality that energises us and that we are great at, or have the potential to become great at, a strength in overdrive is what happens when that energy – which can be so positive and productive in certain contexts and used in certain ways – goes haywire and starts to feed on itself, with the leader in overdrive either unaware of what is happening or of the impact that they’re having, or aware but caught in service to an energy monster…the overdrive strength…seemingly unable to escape, with pandemonium (on a grand or smaller scale) happening all around.

Today I want to talk about this leadership risk in more detail –

How to recognise strengths in overdrive and what to do about it once that overdrive behaviour has been spotted

So let’s talk about strengths in overdrive and what you can do about them.

So first things first, let’s notice that the term ‘strength in overdrive’ starts with the word strength. This can be both a shock and a surprise to many leaders when they’re introduced to the idea for the first time. Because for most people, the idea that something they’ve been acutely aware of for a long time as being a bit of an Achilles heel is actually a strength most of the time is a revelation.

It’s also empowering, once you learn how to harness that energy and use it for the good. But first, you need to come to terms with the negative consequences of your strength in overdrive risks and be clear on the impact they have. Here’s an example taken from our strengths assessment tool Strengthscope using our strength of Optimism – one of our 24 strengths. At its best, Optimism can look like this:

  • You believe that in the vast majority of cases, things will work out for the best
  • You don’t let isolated negative events affect your positive view of the world
  • You look first for the positive in people, plans and projects.

While you may or may not personally have an Optimism strength, you can see that what I’ve just mentioned are all positive, powerful and helpful attitudes or behaviours that a leader with an Optimism strength can bring to their role, team or organisation. As with all strengths, Optimism can be a leadership superpower, lighting the way through a particularly challenging period for a team, providing hope as an outcome, giving people something to hold onto, to help them keep perspective, or seeing opportunity in projects where things are getting derailed, looking for learning in failure.

There are so many other positive outcomes besides.

But, in certain circumstances, when Optimism is tipped into overdrive, it can look more like:

  • Your approach being unrealistically positive, which may be risky if it doesn’t take into account possible pitfalls or shortcomings
  • Or that you may be perceived by others as unrealistic, non-strategic or ‘flaky’.

And this same pattern appears with all strengths – when triggered, that strength can turn to the dark side, no matter how positively powerful it is when in its productive form.

So, for example, a leader with Courage as a strength might come across as too outspoken or reckless in situations that need a more cautious and diplomatic approach.

A leader with a Compassion strength might spend so much time and emotional energy helping others that they end up compromising their own productivity and emotional wellbeing.

For a leader to use their strengths well, they need to develop ‘strengths intelligence’, so they can choose to use their strengths in the right ways, with the right people, at the right time and at the right volume. A strength in overdrive, is most likely to happen as the result of a ‘trigger’ situation which causes the strength to go too far.

Most commonly for leaders, triggers of overdrive can be:

1. Stress and pressure

Where the leader just doesn’t have the capacity to recognise the consequences of their strength going too far, so they just dial it up even louder to cope.

2. Automatic behaviour

That the leader has learned over the years as a suitable response to certain situations, but which they haven’t learned to adapt to the different challenges of leadership. Hence the saying ‘what got you here won’t necessarily get you there’ (horribly misquoted sorry), meaning that you shouldn’t assume that what you used to do that worked for you will carry on working in the same way as you move forward in your career.

3. People triggers

By that I mean people that the leader works with who seem to create a trigger response (because of past events or memories) which in their presence leads to a dialing up of a strength, despite it not working, and before they know it, they’re caught in the overdrive trap without an obvious way to get out.

So what can leaders do about the arch risk of overdrive in order to get a positive outcome?

Here are some practical suggestions taken from many years of working with the overdrive concept with leaders:

1. Know your strengths, and your risks

You can’t develop strengths intelligence and manage your risks if you don’t know about them in the first place. Of course, we would recommend Strengthscope to help with this because it is simple, it’s accessible and it works but other strengths assessments are, of course, available, yawn.

2. Read your triggers

I’ve just been talking about triggers…once you’ve identified which overdrive risks might be the biggest for you, work out what triggers this… personally, some of my greatest overdrive risks are Empathy and Collaboration. To protect a relationship (Collaboration), I’m likely to be too understanding about someone’s else’s situation or stresses or challenges and so I ignore my own needs, taking too much responsibility for the other person’s behaviour.

And what triggers this is my perception of a threat to the relationship, so that’s when my Empathy overdrive kicks in, with a little bit of added Critical thinking to really help me understand what might be going on for the other person so that I can forgive them and put all the responsibility on myself.

3. Get feedback and respond to it

I remember once running a workshop with about 20 senior leaders who were using our 360 degree feedback tool Strengthscope360 (does what it says on the tin). Anyway, the selected 360 feedback raters are asked to rate leaders on the extent that strengths are being used effectively or whether they’re in overdrive.

This one delegate had had feedback that several of their top ranked strengths were in overdrive according to the people who had rated them. Their response: ‘they’re all wrong, they don’t understand me, my strengths aren’t in overdrive because they feel fine to me’. Hmmm. So the moral of the story is, get the feedback but also do something useful with it in terms of developing your strengths intelligence. All feedback is worth something, it’s what you do with it that counts.

4. Dial up to dial down

Fascinatingly, leaders have found that in order to dial down a strength in overdrive, it’s actually often easier to dial UP another complementary strength. To keep my Empathy overdrive risk in check, I dial up my Strategic mindedness strength to keep a realistic overall perspective, stay mission-focused and not dive down an Empathy rabbit-hole never to be seen again. Everyone’s different, so for each leader, the task is to find an antidote complementary strength or strengths that can keep the overdrive risk at bay. Last thing is…

5. Build new habits

Once you’ve worked out you have a risk, you can develop new habits to keep the strength in check so it doesn’t run away with itself. To keep my Empathy in control, I go to my mantra ‘speak my truth’ to make sure that I remember to do that, without worrying that in doing that, I’m going to wreck a relationship. There’s a pretty negligible chance of that happening and if I do damage a relationship, it’s important that my voice is heard even if that is a risk.

For every overdrive risk, there will be a new thought or attitude to develop or a new behaviour to introduce which over time, can become a default. There are plenty of podcasts in my back catalogue on habit-building, so please check those out if you’re interested.

That’s it – your “How To Guide” for finding and thwarting those strength in overdrive leadership risks so that you stay in control and they don’t start running the show: Know your strengths and risks, Read your triggers, Get feedback and respond to it, Dial up to dial down, and Build new habits.

Don’t be a slave to the energy monsters – tame them and keep spreading your goodness in the world.

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