Distinguishing between weaknesses and liabilities

Stanley WardIn my previous post, I discussed a three part process for becoming a more confident leader: 

  1. Make the most of your strengths (those things that you are consistently good at and enjoy doing).
  2. Correct your liabilities (the things that keep you from being effective as a leader).
  3. Make peace with your weaknesses (the parts of your leadership that are not “ideal,” yet not keeping you from accomplishing the mission of your organization).

Let’s talk about how to separate “liabilities” and “weaknesses.”  The most helpful metaphor I know for this is to talk about “paper tigers” and “real tigers.” Harvard Business Review calls this separating “weaknesses” from “fatal flaws.”

Let’s explore the real tiger versus paper tiger image for a bit. Imagine you are walking in a local park with a wooded area. Something pops up in your peripheral vision and your body goes taught – perched on the precipice of a fight or flight response. You just spotted a tiger in the wild.

Your body freezes and you turn your head slightly to get a better look at the threat – and then discover that what you saw only has the shape of a tiger. In fact, it is a paper-mache tiger!  The key distinction here is that while a real tiger can hurt you; a paper one can’t.

Imagine if you had allowed yourself to go into a full-on panic at the sight of a “tiger.” What if you had started screaming at everyone in the park to run for their lives – how would you have felt afterward? Or, what if you had gone into full blown attack mode and attempted to neutralize the threat? How would people around you perceive your violent dismemberment of something akin to a grade school art project? Either way, how much energy would you have wasted on something that wasn’t a real threat?

Distinguishing between weaknesses and liabilities is like distinguishing between paper tigers and real tigers. Weaknesses may at first look like a real threat, but when we take a second look at the situation, we realize that those perceived threats do not pose long term consequences. Here are some examples from the world of work:

  • Going over budget on one item – yet the larger project is still on budget.
  • When a team member tells you about a “big problem,” yet it is one that you know how to solve.
  • Not knowing how to handle a problem when there are other people on the team who can handle it.

Let’s further consider that last bullet point for a moment, as it is a common one for teams I work with. The Gallup Strengthsfinder assessment divided up their 34 strengths into 4 categories of leadership strengths: executing, relating, influencing, and strategic thinking. When I use this tool with coaching clients, we start by identifying the categories where they are strong and the categories where they are either weak or missing top skills entirely. The next step is to ask, “Who do you know that can make up for this gap? What kind of relationship do you have with that person?” To the extent that a leader has strong and collaborative relationships with people whose top strengths lie in areas where the leader is deficient, those deficiencies are only weaknesses. If the leader does not have strong collaborative relationships with others who have top strengths where the leader is deficient, then that gap is a liability.

The mindfulness techniques taught in Claremont Lincoln University first graduate class also helps leaders distinguish between paper tigers and real tigers by giving them self-awareness and self-management skills to know both when they are entering a fight-or-flight state and how to manage that state.

So, what are your tactics for distinguishing between paper tigers and real tigers?

Possible Action Items:

Claremont Lincoln University is an educational partner with Southern California Leadership Network.