Achilles Heel: In Developing Leaders, Don’t Ignore Weaknesses

I consult on talent management and the most common question I get from clients, friends, and even people I meet playing golf is: “What do you think about strengths-based development?”


Maybe, like these people, you’ve read the books on strengths-based development or taken a personal survey to identify your talents. Based on workplace applications of positive psychology, the central message is attractive. I don’t have to fix my weaknesses? I only have to focus on what I’m good at?  Sign me up!


When asked about strengths-based development, I have a ready answer – “I bet you know someone who failed because they relied on strengths that made them successful in one role but they didn’t adapt to the demands of a different job.” The answer is always yes.


This is not a new problem. In fact, it’s ancient history. Remember Achilles? Grasped by his heel and dipped in the River Styx as an infant, Achilles almost achieved immortality. Almost, because that one heel never touched the magical waters. Even after many successes on the battlefield, Achilles was vulnerable. When an arrow pierced his heel during the Trojan War, his time was up. Thinking he was invincible, Achilles had never addressed the one weakness that led to his death.


Whether you want to win a battle or lead an organization, relying on strengths alone is never a viable option for success. Research – and common sense – tells us that there are significant differences in the capabilities required for different jobs and levels of leadership. In fact when we build career paths for clients probably the most valuable information is the different capabilities required for effective performance at a higher level job.


The skills needed to be a successful individual contributor are not those required to be the head of an enterprise. In fact many leaders experience performance problems because they operate at the level of their direct reports rather than using the appropriate capabilities and style for someone at their level.


Research and experience in leadership coaching reveal that there are derailers – self-defeating personality traits – that are likely to emerge under stress and contribute to performance problems or even failure. (The Hogan Development Survey can be used to measure them.)  Some of these derailers might be thought of as strengths that are taken too far – as when self-confidence bleeds into arrogance.


A key element in assessing and developing top talent is to make leaders aware of their potential derailers and the situational triggers that cause them to cross the line into ineffective behavior. Effective leadership development programs help participants recognize their self-defeating behaviors and give them the support and tools to deal with – any maybe even heal – those vulnerable areas. Only then can leaders truly leverage all their strengths.

Additional reading materials on this topic:

Now, Discover Your Strengths – A popular book on the strengths-based development approach
The Leadership Pipeline: How to Build the Leadership Powered Company – How companies can develop leaders at every level by focusing on different job requirements
Why CEOs Fail: The 11 Behaviors than can Derail Your Climb to the Top – and How to Manage Them – Common characteristics of failed top executives and how to avoid these behaviors
The Perils of Accentuating the Positive – A comprehensive discussion on the drawbacks of strengths-based development



Rate this article
5 4 3 2 1