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One of the biggest career decisions we face is whether to work on improving our strengths or reducing our weaknesses. There is no simple answer. It depends on what those are, how essential they are to your role and how comfortable you are with the person you would be after deciding which to tackle. But you should decide – and act.

Canadian HR consultant Alan Kearns has discovered that most of his clients have a much clearer picture of their weaknesses than their strengths. In fact, he says on his blog that “only 20 per cent of professionals have a clear and accurate perspective of their strengths.”

Consultant Wally Bock argues dealing with weaknesses is important, but you don’t want to make the mistake of trying to eliminate them since that usually takes too much time. You’ll be using time to eliminate weaknesses that could be profitably used instead to heighten your strengths. So make your weaknesses irrelevant by becoming “good enough” at them or by getting somebody else to do them.

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In the recently published third edition of The New Extraordinary Leader, human resources development experts John Zenger and Joseph Folkman share some helpful ideas on the strengths-weakness dilemma based on studying research data, including their own analysis of the difference between the top and bottom 10 per cent of managers as seen through the eyes of others in 360-degree reports. They note that effective leaders have widely different skills. For example, both Dwight D. Eisenhower and George Patton were top-rated generals but they were very different, one calm, restrained and self-effacing, the other flamboyant and impetuous. As well, effective leadership can be specific to an organization. Countless leaders who were successful in one organization have failed in another.

They discredit the notion that strengths practised at too high a level can boomerang into becoming a weakness. “Genuine strengths cannot be practised in excess,” they say. Crucially, their research indicates great leaders are not defined by the absence of weakness, but rather by the presence of clear strengths – indeed, multiple strengths according to peers and subordinates. The more strengths people have, the more likely they are to be perceived as great leaders.

In seeking executives, we often crave people with no flaws. Instead, focus on the right, multiple strengths. Seeking no-flaw leaders may just give you “blah” leadership. They found approximately 70 per cent of managers do not possess any severe weakness, yet are not perceived as strong leaders. They warn that the absence of profound weaknesses combined with the absence of any profound strengths will probably make you no better than an average leader.

Great leaders are not perceived as having any major weaknesses. So you can have weaknesses, but it depends on what area and how deep the weakness is. The research shows a leader who is perceived very poorly on any single, important leadership trait pays a high price – just one skill rated at the lowest decile in those 360-degree reports means the individual inevitably is ranked in the lowest 20 per cent of leaders. So you can have weaknesses, but not fatal flaws or major derailers.

I first encountered the notion of derailers in the 2003 book Why CEOs Fail, by David Dotlich and Peter Cairo. They did argue that often these derailers were strengths that under stress become exaggerated or warped, leading to failure. I often come back to the 11 they name: arrogance, melodrama (trying to always grab the centre of attention), volatility, excessive caution, habitual distrust, aloofness, mischievousness (impulsively breaking the rules without considering the consequences), eccentricity, passive resistance, perfectionism, and eagerness to please. They say the average person has two or three derailers and the key is learning to manage them – being alert to situations where they strike and dampening their effect.

Behaviour analyst Kerry Goyette, in Harvard Business Review, came up with a shorter list that caught my eye of six habits that can hurt your career: conflict avoidance, impulsiveness (unpredictable emotional responses, such as anger and frustration), blame shifting, insisting on control, perfectionism and power hunger. Blogger and trainer Dan Rockwell often talks about leadership derailers, including anger, fatigue as a badge of honour, inability to gain advantage from criticism, the blind spot that you are amazingly awesome and self-reliance – an insistence on always doing things by yourself.

You have to decide what your weaknesses are (the lists I have provided are intended to highlight some common ones), whether they are fatal flaws or can be managed, and how to allocate your time between diminishing your weaknesses and enhancing the strengths side.

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Cannonballs

Beware of the maxim that “failing to plan is planning to fail,” consultant Gleb Tsipursky warns. Making plans is important, but our gut reaction is to plan for the best-case outcomes, ignoring the high likelihood that things will go wrong. Instead, subscribe to his reworded maxim: Failing to plan for problems is planning to fail.

Recruiting expert John Sullivan says great HR departments are differentiated from good ones by their willingness to test the hypotheses they operate under.

Consultant Claire Lew notes the three most effective ways leaders believe they can build trust were rated the worst options in a survey of 597 people. Those are company retreats and team-building activities; thanking your team and giving recognition; and being transparent with company information. The actual highest-rated were showing vulnerability as a leader, communicating the intent behind your actions and following through on commitments.

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