The Problem With Ignoring Your Weaknesses

(Reader alert – this blog post is being written from a soapbox).  In the leadership development field, nothing is as controversial (OK, at least to me) as the “focus on your strengths, ignore your weaknesses” argument that has blossomed over the last 15 years or so.  Just today, I read another piece about “the tremendous energy” that is wasted by people trying to improve their weaknesses, and that we should be “accepting employee weaknesses” as part of a strategy to focus them on their strengths.  To which I politely say: bull*&#!

The above appeared as an excerpt in the always terrific Harvard Business Publishing’s Management Tip of the Day email that I get faithfully every morning (really, it’s great – click on the link to subscribe).  It was this quote that really got me steamed – “Most importantly, accept their weaknesses. If one person isn’t good at spreadsheets, ask someone else to do them instead. If you can’t take away that part of their job, help them improve enough so it doesn’t hinder their strengths.” 

First, let me state my love for strengths – I’m a big fan of strengths. The more the better, and hopefully, we all have certain strengths that we leverage to the hilt. I even endorse the Strengths Finder tool – I think it’s smart to identify what you’re really good at. That’s not where I have a problem. My problem is on the weaknesses part of the equation. First of all, when did it become OK to settle for the status quo, and stop developing yourself, just because you aren’t good at something? Does that mean Tom Brady doesn’t have to work on reading defenses because he’s a great passer? Should he just throw the ball really hard on every play? When did it become acceptable to knowingly fail to improve in some aspect of your core job? Does the CFO not have to do performance evaluations with his directs, because he’s really a numbers guy, and isn’t that good at evaluating talent? Should we just let him work the books, and not worry about developing his people?

OK, to be fair, the author did say that if you can’t remove it from the job, at least get “good enough” at it so it doesn’t hinder your strengths. But wait, I even have a problem with that. Here’s why – every time I read an argument for “ignoring your weaknesses”, it always seems to cite employees and relatively trivial things like “creating spreadsheets”. OK, fine – for employees, I’ll give you that certain mundane tasks might be easily reassigned. But what about the leader? What if the executive’s weakness is interpersonal or relationship building skills?     Are we going to reassign those tasks and have him just develop strategy? What if the leader is humiliating emerging leaders, throwing temper tantrums or harassing staff? Do we shrug that off, and say “focus on your strengths”? Do we ignore “weaknesses” of integrity, trust, and ethics?   How about the boss who takes all the credit, doesn’t support his people, or doesn’t cooperate with other departments? Is that OK? These are most definitely weaknesses – are we going to ignore them? I say absolutely not. I think those are serious flaws that need to be corrected if the person is going to continue to be a member of the team. That’s precisely why we have core values and leadership competencies – so leaders understand what is expected of them. And last time I checked, we weren’t saying they could be great at some of these and lousy at others.

Look, I get the essence of this movement – that we all have strengths we should be focusing on and leveraging. I buy that. But I will never accept the argument that we should stop developing areas of weakness if our job calls for us to be at least competent in that performance dimension. There is no way a leader should be able to “get by” with being a tyrant – that is a weakness no employee should have to endure. There’s no way a leader should be so wildly disorganized that they cause others to work dozens of hours more each week just because, “oh well, that’s just their style”. And leaders shouldn’t be able to carry the “weaknesses” of bullying others, being an overbearing micro-manager, or throwing their people under the bus on a regular basis. Some “weaknesses” are just unacceptable, period. When it comes to leadership, employees have earned the right to expect a certain level of skill and competence in some of the basic areas of leading others.

The next time you see a “violation” of good leadership practices go uncorrected because someone says: “that’s just Johnny being Johnny”, stand up and question that with all your heart. I don’t care how great they are in other areas, if they’ve got “weaknesses” that hurt other people, they’re going to attract our attention, and we’re going to try and work with them to stamp out those flaws. In the end, I can buy “focusing on your strengths, as long as your “weaknesses” aren’t damaging those around you.