Real Leaders

Recognizing When Your Strengths Cast a Shadow and 8 Ways to Fix It

A lot has been written in recent years about “strength-based” development approaches. Research suggests that you’re better off building on your natural strengths and talents than trying to improve your weaknesses.

The usefulness of the strength-based approach explains its popularity. It makes good sense: put yourself in situations where your gifts and talents can be put to good use and you’ll increase the likelihood of being successful.  

Strengths are good things. But too much of a good thing is often a very bad thing. Past a certain point, our strengths start to cast a shadow. The leader who is comfortable speaking in public may turn into an attention hog always seeking the limelight. And the leader who is a gifted critical thinker may become overly critical of others. The leader who has great interpersonal skills may place too much emphasis on subjective criteria when making decisions. And while it is true that every leader should develop and nurture his or her unique gifts and talents, this isn’t where development should end. To be fully developed as a leader, you need to go further. 

Every leader needs to be keenly aware that strengths can become overly potent — sometimes toxically so. The strength of drive can give way to dominance, which can become the weakness of intimidation. Likewise, the strength of confidence can slip over into the weakness of arrogance. Every leader is made up of sunshine and shadows. Paying attention only to the shiny parts of your leadership causes your shadow to grow, practically ensuring that efforts will backfire. 

When that recoil comes, and it happens to all of us, how do you learn and grow from it? Because here is one fundamental truth about a reality check: if you refuse to learn the lessons it can provide, a harder and more painful confrontation is sure to follow. As the saying goes, “If you don’t learn the lesson, you have to repeat the class.” 

Here are some quick tips for ensuring that you’re ready to benefit from whatever reality check you may next endure: 

1. Focus on the long game. Casting a light on your shadow is just a momentary speed bump on your longer leadership career. The bruise to your ego will eventually yield worthwhile lessons and changes. Focus on where you ultimately want your career to end up, not the detour it may have taken. 

2. Learn from your feelings. Pay close attention to the feelings that come up for you after your revelation. Identify what you’re feeling, precisely. Do you feel embarrassed, fearful, resentful, or something else? Then ask yourself, “What information is this feeling trying to give me?” and “What is the lesson this feeling is trying to teach me?” 

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3. Remember, discomfort = growth. Comfort may be comfortable, but it’s also stagnant. You don’t grow in a zone of comfort. You grow, progress, and evolve in a zone of discomfort. The more uncomfortable the realization feels the more growth can result. 

4. Broaden your view of courage. Being vulnerable, open, and receptive to change is a form of courage. Hard-charging types wrongly see courage as being fearless. Nothing could be further from the truth. Courage is fearful. The simplest definition of courage is “acting despite being afraid.” Courage requires fear. As long as you keep moving forward, it’s when there’s a knot in your stomach, a lump in your throat, and sweat on your palms that your courage is doing its job. 

5. Don’t be oblivious to yourself. How much might it be costing you to remain loyal to your ignorance? Self-exploration and discovery can be painful, but what’s more painful in the long run is being a stunted human being, incapable of acknowledging, assimilating, or shoring up your shortcomings. 

6. Be your own project. Lots of people lead projects better than they lead themselves. Think about what it takes to lead a great project. You start by identifying your desired outcomes, you put together a timeline and pinpoint critical milestones, you marshal the resources the project will need to be successful, and you identify metrics to track progress. Guess what? You can manage your rebound in the exact same way. 

7. Stay present. Rather than try to avoid all that surfaces for you during and immediately after the humiliating event, fully immerse yourself in the experience. What feelings come up for you? What fears are at work? How might your feelings and fears serve you once the entire experience plays out? What are you learning and how can you put those lessons to good use? 

As much as self-discovery can be painful, it’s also fantastically rewarding. The journey to the center of one’s self is the most important voyage you’ll ever take. It’s how you become a whole person, truly knowing the full dimensions of your talents, idiosyncrasies, and deepest desires. 

Ultimately, if you let it, a humiliating incident can be the entry point for a richer, fuller, and more complete understanding of yourself as a leader and as a human being. Armed with that knowledge, you’ll be better able to use your strengths — and actively mitigate the shadows your strengths sometimes cause — so they better serve you and others.  

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