Leadership Matters: Enhance Strengths or Improve Weaknesses?

athlete exercising with a yellow kettlebell
By Tim Tolliver

4 minutes

Increasing self-clarity allows us to see our current palette of skills as a starting point for growth.

“Every human has four endowments; self-awareness, conscience, independent will, and creative imagination. These give us the ultimate human freedom. . . the power to choose, to respond, to change.” - Steven Covey

The dualistic strengths-versus-weaknesses perspective so common in professional development is a helpful starting point in the conversation on developing leadership skills. However, this focus on weakness can also be limiting and leave us with a fixed, narrow view of what a successful leader looks like, of ourselves as leaders, even of what leadership is or is not.

This limited mindset does not allow for leaders to change and grow as individuals, nor does it allow for adaptation into new roles within the trajectory of a developing career.

Other philosophies propose that we can access more of our latent leadership potential when we concentrate our efforts on our areas of perceived strength rather than investing energy into “correcting” areas of “deficiency” (a.k.a. “areas of opportunity.”)  While this approach can be effective, it does not necessarily encourage us to identify and stretch into areas that hold the greatest potential for personal development or our growth as leaders simply for the sake of growth.

This is not an argument for or against the merits of either of these philosophies. Instead, this article is about the powerful and underlying principle that is foundational to both of those perspectives: the competency to see yourself clearly within your current leadership context.

The concept of self-clarity is a crucial, yet often overlooked aspect of leadership and executive development. Self-clarity is our ability to see and accept ourselves as we are without unduly attaching inherent value to what we see staring back at us from the mirror. It’s our ability to be at ease in our own skin and say, “This is me. This is what I have to offer.” It allows us the dignity of being what we all are at our core: human.

Having a clear understanding of what we do and don’t bring to the table in a position of leadership is essential to effectively organizing our attention and marshaling the right kind of internal and external resources without falling prey to a defensive posture and avoiding the easy road of becoming a carbon copy.

Getting more comfortable with where you are may seem counterintuitive to advancing your leadership skills, but there is evidence that leaders who increase their level of self-clarity are more likely to make plans, move into action and view situations in a more positive and less stressful light. These same leaders also demonstrate higher levels of mental and behavioral engagement. Put another way, when a leader (more accurately) self-assesses the absence of some competency or capacity and there isn’t enough time to grow that capability, they empower themselves to seek outside resources rather than set themselves up for failure; the most appropriate action is then taken for the situation. The flip side is saying, “Of course I have the skill and capacity, I’m an executive, and that grants me above-average ______.” (You know best how to fill in the blank.) Only then might you find out the action taken was a misfire or perhaps, out of fear of failure, no action was taken at all.

Here’s what one mid-level leader had to say about her process of cultivating self-clarity:

“As challenging as it was to come face-to-face with my ‘areas of opportunity,’ I feel I have become a stronger me. I have more grace for myself, more acceptance of my competencies, more courage to borrow other competencies when warranted, and an increased understanding of those I interact with.”

A focused and intentional cultivation of competencies now lies at the center of this leader’s professional development, rather than a reactive grasping for the latest leadership trends or models. It is this willingness to accept ourselves as we are in our current context, without the need for comparison to others in the same context, that allows us to more easily solicit and receive essential feedback. This positions us to increase our degree of self-clarity, which is essential for framing future growth. Increasing self-clarity allows us to see our current palette of skills and capacities for what they are: a starting point for growth rather than a scorecard of past performance.

Taking the time to answer the hard questions about what we do and don’t bring to the leadership conversation shines light into the corners of our leadership, and it’s what keeps great leaders grounded in reality rather than becoming “legends in their own minds.”

In a future post, we’ll look at the dangers that lurk when self-clarity is absent and how you can cultivate it in your leadership life and your teams. Until then, take some time to ask the hard questions, get some feedback and get clarity!

Tim Tolliver develops high-capacity teams and individuals capable of taking effective action with new skill and conviction. As a performance coach, trainer and facilitator, Tim has worked with leaders in the fields of finance, law, health care and business. Tim works with executive teams, teaches in the award-winning Emerging Leaders Program and leads the “C” Yourself executive leadership program at CUESolutions provider DDJ Myers.

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