Fear Your Strengths: A book review by Bob Morris

Fear Your StrengthsFear Your Strengths: What You Are Best at Could Be Your Biggest Problem
Robert Kaplan and Robert Kaiser
Berrett-Koehler Publishers (2013)

Actually, what we should fear are complacency and self-satisfaction as well as the assumption that “just good enough” really is.

As I began to read this book, I was reminded of the title of one of Marshall Goldsmith’s more recent books, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. My own opinion is that whatever got you here won’t even keep you here, wherever “here” may be. Robert Kaplan and Robert Kaiser obviously agree with Goldsmith and extend his insight to wider and deeper applications, as suggested by their own book’s subtitle: “What you are best at could be your biggest problem.”

The determination of a person’s strengths is inevitably subjective: narrow-minded or a specialist, stubborn of having the courage of one’s convictions, stubborn or stalwart, etc. You get the idea. As Kaplan and Kaiser observe, “A leader’s desire to be forceful and straightforward becomes a tendency to be abusive and preemptory. A devotion to consensus-seeking breeds chronic indecision. An emphasis on being respectful of others degenerates into ineffectual niceness. The desire to turn a profit and serve shareholders becomes a preoccupation with short-term thinking.” Robert Greenleaf would probably add that a servant leader need not be subservient to others. Yes, issues such as these are tricky and sometimes immensely complicated but as countless men and woman have demonstrated, leadership greatness can be achieved and sustained by almost anyone, with or with residence in the C-Suite.

To me, the primary danger is not to become fearful of one’s strengths; rather, to become complacent and self-satisfied because of those strengths, smugly confident that “just good enough” really is. Self-improvement should be a never-ending process. Today’s strengths could well be tomorrow’s adequacies and next week’s liabilities.

In my opinion, Kaplan and Kaiser’s key point in the book is that continuous improvement is best understood as involving two separate but related initiatives: constantly striving to fulfill potentialities, and meanwhile, increasing their scope and depth. To play off a term from Jim Collins, once a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) is achieved, it establishes the status quo and unless continuously improved, organizational stagnation and decay are inevitable. Moreover, defenders of the status quo become hostage to what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

o Forceful and Enabling Leadership (Pages 21-26)
o Strategic and Operational Leadership (26-33)
o Mindset Traps: What’s Behind Overuse? (40-45)
o Biases & Prejudices: What’s Behind Lopsidedness? (45-55)
o The Outer Game: Working on Your Behavior (60-65)
o The Inner Game: Working on Your Mindset (65-67)
o Self-Control: Using Counterweights (77-80)
o Accept Yourself, Test Yourself, and Offset Yourself: The Route to Versatility (86-94)

Re that last passage, complete leaders do that and they also help others to do it.

Don’t be deterred by the length of this book (94 pages). Kaplan and Kaiser obviously agree with Albert Einstein: “Make everything as simple as possible but no simpler.” Drawing upon the vast resources of the Center for Creative Leadership as well as their own wide and deep business experience, they explain how and why strengths can become weaknesses for both individuals and organizations. They also suggest how to become and then remain a “complete leader” ad heaven knows, all organizations need such leadership at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. When thinking about how to conclude this brief commentary, I decided to cite my favorite passage in the Tao Te Ching. It suggests what Robert Kaplan and Robert Kaiser emphasize throughout their narrative: A complete leader sets an example for others as an eager and able collaborator during a never-ending process (i.e. “The Route to Versatility”) of self-improvement. Here’s what Lao-Tzu recommends:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

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  1. Marilyn Mathis on September 20, 2013 at 2:26 pm

    Excellent, balanced review!

    As a certified Strengths coach/instructor, this answers some of the questions I receive about how not to go overboard in relying on the identifiable themes, and how to apply Strengths in leadership.

    Thank you, Bob!

    • bobmorris on September 24, 2013 at 12:18 pm

      Marilyn: I cannot recall a prior time in U.S. business history when the services you offer were more valuable than they are today…or more challenging. I wish you great success in the vineyards of free enterprise. Best regards, Bob

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