Leadership coaching clients are often advised to leverage their strengths. This is sometimes interpreted to mean ‘keep doing what you are doing, but do it more…’ Yet clients are also counseled that if overused, those strengths become weaknesses: assertiveness leads to bullying; detail-orientation leads to micro-managing, and so on. How to reconcile this mixed message?

The insights of leadership scholar Robert Kaplan are quite useful here. In Internalizing Strengths (1999, CCL), a short but powerful monograph, he asserts that most of our high performing clients are articulate, analytical, and insecure — anxious they will be revealed as somehow not good enough. Their high performance helps keep ‘imposter anxiety’ at bay. And what quicker, more efficient way to high performance than to exercise one’s strengths, over and over again?

Kaplan’s point is that overusing strengths is not leveraging them. Rather, leadership development starts by first deeply accepting our strengths as strengths. In other words, the world already gets how great we are and so should we.

Is there a too smart?

True confession: as a younger consultant, I over-did proving to everybody how smart I was. I used lots of jargon, spoke first and fast in client meetings, and relied on others’ praise for my self-worth. I was the eager rookie, with an edge.

I had no idea that my style turned off my consulting colleagues, who saw me as overly competitive, and even my clients, who perceived me as too judgmental.

I was lucky to have a mentor who used affectionate sarcasm to coach me: “You were the smartest one in that room,” Neil used to say, “and everyone knew it… but you.” After lots of feedback I eventually got it. When I realized I didn’t have to prove myself all the time, I actually relaxed. This allowed me to focus on my real job rather than worry about not being at the same level as everyone else. But this isn’t only about me.

I recently coached a super-bright executive in the electrical transformer business. Ian trained as an engineer, but early on he stood out more for his charisma. Promoted quickly into business development, he became quite successful. Ian was well liked, knowledgeable about his business, and destined for more significant responsibilities.

But he was also seen as insincere — a little too smooth, which led people to trust him less. People said they didn’t know the real Ian, that he always talked about how great everything was, and that he was overly ingratiating.

Ian was a ‘pleaser.’ In his own mind, he was worthy only when he was liked, taking care of others’ needs, and not upsetting people. But for positions of greater responsibility he had to be able to challenge others and come across more authentically.

Over-pleasing isn’t pleasant

Ian didn’t realize he was already well regarded and didn’t have to keep proving it. If only he accepted his great strength as an effective relationship-builder he could ease off and have enough energy left to develop other capabilities. But until then, he would keep overplaying it like a one-note song.

One of Ian’s ‘ah-ha’ moments occurred when he told me that he was really pleased with my coaching and that he would like to refer me for other projects in his company. I replied that he was the only person I was prepared to work with at his firm, and asked why he was trying to please me. His gesture was nice, I said, but I thought it fit into the ingratiating pattern we had been discussing.

At first he was surprised by my reaction. He thought he was trying to help me, but I was confident he was trying to please me. And, I wasn’t acting pleased. On reflection  he realized it was an example of the same reflexive pattern. After all, it was pretty clear that I liked and respected him already.

Ian realized he was playing the wrong tape in his head. Despite all evidence, the recording repeated, “if you don’t please people you will be rejected and unloved.” When he understood this was not real but an anxiety-driven story he was telling himself, he could replace it with a more reality-based narrative. This he did, but it took time, experimentation and evidence that he could communicate about his struggles and difficulties without losing peoples’ affection. That took courage, as it does for anyone determined to develop and grow.

It is easy to toss around terms like ‘leverage your strengths’ without really understanding what this takes. It is not about over-use; it is about acceptance, and understanding that the person we most often need to prove ourselves to is our self. And upon doing so, recognizing that personal growth has already taken place.

© Robert Ponzoni -ALL RIGHTS RESERVED 2008