Our Greatest Strengths Are Our Greatest Weaknesses
by Ken Goldstein
Seventh in a Series of Ten
Many years ago a company where I held a senior position suggested a “voluntary task” that our executive team all take the Myers-Briggs “Personality Test” to help us better understand our “management styles.” Deeply suspicious and mistrustful of the kinds of words I put in quotations in the prior sentence and the ability for a series of multiple choice questions to tell me anything of business or psychological value, I only reluctantly complied to gently nudge Dilbert from the premises. To my great surprise, although I found most of the questions telegraph transparent and almost silly obvious, the results of that test seemed remarkably accurate to me. Rather than find myself in a defensive posture, I was actually quite pleased with the summary — I found it to make sense, and I liked what it implied. That’s when the learning began.
To this day I will never forget discussing the attribute matrix with our head of Human Resources, which served as an incredible bridge between my view of the world and hers, and led to a tremendous lifelong friendship. She agreed the summary was a good reflection of reality, and she was pleased that I was pleased because it meant I would stop widely dismissing the test as brain-dead corporate-speak. Then she made it make sense without judgment or criticism; her words were simple, memorable, and strangely this was the very first time I had heard them, the words captured in the sub-head above: “Our greatest strengths are our greatest weaknesses.”
That’s one I wish I had known and digested thirty years prior, maybe around birth, because it is not at all terribly intuitive and not something one of your high school or college friends, teachers, or coaches is likely to blurt out. So what does it mean?
Suppose you are an extremely independent thinker, you don’t much worry about what the crowd says, you let the noise blow past your ears and stick to your muse, to what you believe is true and right and just and fair and a winning approach. That’s a very good thing, right? It is a strength of which you can be proud, it will keep your eyes on your moral compass and let you make honest, uncompromised, unpolluted decisions everyday that steer you and your team to unprecedented success. You go, fellow! A strength is a strength and you got one.
But wait! What if there is another voice in the room that could ever so slightly adjust your approach, if only you heard it. What if the collective wisdom of those around you can improve your opinion, and with it build a consensus that becomes everyone’s shared moral compass. Isn’t that better? Well of course it is, especially if it’s more right than where you started. Yet you have this amazing strength to stay focused, so you don’t hear it, or you don’t encourage others to articulate it. So how is your strength a strength if it doesn’t get you the best possible point of view on an approach?
Oh, that’s fuzzy and messy, isn’t it? Not quite as clear and straightforward as we hoped. Now let’s flip it the other way.
Suppose you are a spectacular listener and consensus builder, the best ever. Your team actually looks forward to meetings because they know everyone has a say in everything, that their voices will always be heard and you will never move forward without consensus. Your colleagues across the board think you are great, kind, wonderful, open, accessible, even friendly. That’s an incredible strength, you are a genuine team player. Your strength is your people skills, that too rare comforting gift which we seldom see in abundance.
Yet what if the team could not come to consensus? What if there is no shared point of view, no collaborative moral compass? What if the people around you are shooting from the hip? They haven’t really researched the facts on the topic at hand, but since you expect contributions from all they feel they have to say something even if it is not well-considered. So now you have a dialogue, but you don’t have a punchline. Or worse, you have a consensus, but because the input was tarnished, the direction you are taking is clearly wrong out of the gate. You remain respected for your strength, but when you get to the edge of Niagara Falls, you are still going to tumble over the edge with a mighty hard landing awaiting you in the rocks below.
The other side of strength may be weakness, and the other side of weakness may be strength. Balance is the hard part, and balance is what you find in the collective wisdom and talents of those around you. A quarterback leading the league in passing might be forced off his game by a smart defense, but does he know that and what is he doing with that knowledge? A virtuoso guitarist in a band may have the limelight and power to stand center stage, but is her voice the best to carry the song? These are not easy lessons or easy choices, but the answer is most often in the ask, and the ask is what we don’t often enough unravel.
With your talent came some offsets; unless you are superhuman that’s a fact. To know the offset is to enhance the talent. To balance the offset is to give the talent life.
That HR VP sure knew her stuff. I am glad I learned to listen to her. Before the Myers-Briggs test, I probably wouldn’t have.