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“The Leader already knows and understands their strengths and weaknesses. They acknowledge them, own them, build on them, and are self-aware.”
What does it mean to know and understand your strengths and weaknesses, to own them, and to be self-aware? First, it is essential to realize that we are talking about individual strengths and weaknesses, those characteristics unique to each one of us to different degrees. We are not talking about the so-called strengths and weaknesses of the corporation, the group, or the group conscience, or what you think you must be good at to fill a particular role. (So, we are not going to mention SWOT analysis as it does not apply to this discussion.) It is imperative to delineate this in your mind. A strength or weakness for an individual is a trait unique to that individual. It may augment, align with, or be in opposition to any perceived corporate strengths or weaknesses, or the strengths and weaknesses of others. The Leader must wholly understand themselves – and understand themselves honestly.
(Before going any further, it is essential to acknowledge that this topic alone could fill several psychology books – and has. Although I expand on this extensively in other writings, it is simply my objective here to provoke thought that inspires the reader to want to understand some of the nuanced aspects of themselves in more profound ways, especially those things that pertain to being a successful leader. Thus, I have tried to keep this missive succinct.)
More than thinking about how to answer the anecdotal interview question, “Tell us about your strengths and weaknesses?” I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey (as Charles Gray, playing a famous criminologist, once said).
What Exactly is a Strength or Weakness?
‘Strengths’ are characteristics that we think of that help us to excel or do certain tasks well. When answering the anecdotal question above, we frame strengths in our minds as traits that we draw upon to complete a task successfully or how we build relationships with others. Or perhaps we think about those things upon which we rely buried deep within our psyche to achieve a stated goal or objective. On the other hand, we think of ‘weaknesses’ as a disadvantage, a fault, a character flaw, a defect, an internal condition over which we have no control that prevents us from otherwise accomplishing some objective, whether assigned or variously set in our mind, to a particular personal standard.
The subconscious implication is that we gravitate toward our ‘strengths’ – things we can be successful at, and we avoid our ‘weaknesses’ – something that we may be less successful at. Or perhaps, for the executive or the Leader, a tendency to gravitate toward things we know we can do well and avoid other things we know we are not as good at. Let us take it one step further. We do things that make us feel good about ourselves and avoid doing things that do not make us feel so good about ourselves, but we do them anyway because we have to!
There are volumes and volumes of psychological literature that provide foundationally theoretical, valid measures of human strength(s). It is not my goal to present a grounded theory study of the existing literature, nor bore the reader with pages of regurgitated academic citations. Instead, I wish to simply inspire the reader to ask the question, “Do I truly know what my strengths and weaknesses are?” Perhaps more importantly, “Have my strengths and weaknesses changed?” Well, can you answer these two simple questions – honestly?
Do You Know?
I would venture a guess and say that you have probably cut and pasted that Core Strengths section of your resume verbatim – without even re-reading it – every time you did a resume version update! I suggest that the almost daily colloquial reference to ‘strengths and weaknesses’ has become so mundane, so cliché, so blase’ that there is a large section of the population that cannot currently answer that question with any real degree of surety or confidence.
As a behavioral scientist, engineer, mental health professional, business owner, consultant, practitioner, musician (and generally all-round nice guy), I am fascinated by questions that prompt reflection on the things that do and do not work in the lives of people, and why? Why does the combination of certain musical notes create what we call ‘dissonance,’ while others create ‘harmony’? The same question may be asked of the leader-subordinate relationship. Why do certain personalities, when combined, seem to create tension, while others create consonance?
4,250,000 Google® search results pop up when you enter “strengths and weakness” (including the quotation marks to denote ‘must include all terms’ to limit the number of search results and exclude the iterative combinations of each term) that will help you understand what “yours” are. There is also advice as to which ones you should list on your resume to land that perfect job, or what online test you can take figure out what and who you really are. Why are ‘strengths and weaknesses’ perceived as being something so difficult to understand that it necessitates so much advice on how to discover yours, which ones are good, and which ones are not?
They’ve Been There All the Time!
As we grow and mature in age and experience, new knowledge and ability are constantly added to our toolbox of character traits. While we may find that we slowly lose pleasure in doing certain things, it is doubtful that anyone would say that one of their ‘strengths’ has now become a ‘weakness’ (excluding the impact of emotional trauma). Therefore, they work hard to avoid the said thing. While you may not derive the same amount of intense joy or satisfaction in some tasks, you can probably still accomplish them and perform them very well. Some tasks merely become more routine. This thought, in turn, may also prompt the question, “Is it possible that a ‘weakness’ can become one of my ‘strengths’?”
Thus, the Leader must be assessing their personal strengths and weaknesses regularly and looking to acknowledge the change. And just how exactly do you do that without taking one of those personality tests you mentioned?
Know thyself? But how? Well, you can book five sessions with your local psychologist and work in partnership to develop a flexible, comprehensive conceptualization of self – OR you can embark on a personal journey of self-discovery by opening up to yourself in an honest and empathetic way. I do not jest; this is for many the hardest and loneliest journey they may ever embark on, and for some, the forced downtime due to COVID-19 has unintentionally forced this confrontation. It is THE road less traveled, and many a fearful wanderer becomes mired and lost along the way. Yet, for others, it is the most exciting journey they will ever take: The mission of self-discovery.
Entire books have been dedicated to the details of this concept. If you are interested, I wholeheartedly encourage you to explore them, but for the sake of this short discussion, let me propose that taking the first step is not as hard or as intimidating as it first may seem. Once underway, the traveler will often find that the next step is thus revealed, and so on until the path forward reveals itself with little to no effort at all.
So where and how do I start on this journey?
The Journey of Self Discovery Along the Path of Enlightenment
I will not attempt to lay out a step-by-step guide in this short piece by which you might embark on your ‘own personal path to enlightenment’ – or for our purpose, self-discovery of your strengths and weaknesses. How each individual sets out on the journey is part of the process. I can, however, offer a few simple thoughts on which to dwell to get you started with that first step. (Perhaps you might want to take a pencil and paper and jot down a few thoughts as you go. Often, when you read your notes later, a story seems to appear that you did not even know you were writing.)
1) Our ‘strengths’ are continually developing as we learn, grow, and adapt to new opportunities. Whereas we may become aware of new ‘weaknesses,’ we do not develop those in the same way. What new things have you learned or found you do well recently?
2) Experience, personal background, and the values we develop over a lifetime create the mechanisms by which we handle any given situation and form the lens through which we see and judge others. What traits do you have in common with those in your circle?
3) It is human nature to identify the negatives readily and quickly and immediately focus on our ‘weaknesses,’ or what we think we cannot do or avoid. We do not always clearly or as quickly see the positives, our ‘strengths,’ although they’re much more important for personal growth. When you are reflecting on a task, do you first recognize a sense of pride in the accomplishment, or do you immediately focus on ‘the things I could have done better’? Post-mortems are important!
4) Is there something in your life that you were forced to adjust to by circumstance or choice, and over time, how did that change you? As an example, one of the most persuasive and most influential examples of change is adaption through an experience of love, appreciation, or commitment.
5) Owning our strengths and weaknesses means nothing more than taking responsibility for how we approach, embark on, and complete an assignment, and understanding that there may be certain reasons hidden in our psyche behind said effort.
(How you approach a challenge may be a strength or weakness unto itself.)
There is a necessary clarification that goes along with the concept of owning our strengths and weaknesses. As you are journeying along the road of self-discovery, it is imperative that the idea of understanding your strengths and weaknesses not cross over that thin grey line of preference into the understanding of why we make the decisions we make. Confusing the kind of person that we are and why we do and don’t do certain things with what we do well opens up a deep dive into personal values and the moralization of decisions. While an exciting and lengthy chapter for my book, it is a discussion best left for another time and place. It is essential to acknowledge this here in an effort to avoid the associated confusion. For the time being, let’s just focus on what we do, not necessarily why we do it, although decoupling these things may sometimes be difficult.
Rather than evangelize a philosophy of self-discovery in this limited medium, I am including a link to this informative and enlightening article “Know Thyself” Is Not Just Silly Advice” by Bence Nanay published in Psychology Today.  It is a pertinent and exciting read for anyone interested in self-evaluation and goes much deeper than what I have included here.
I will end this missive with a closing thought: There is neither shame nor embarrassment in personal discovery and acknowledging and embracing our strengths and weaknesses. It is especially important to recognize as Leaders that neither we nor those with whom we are entrusted to lead are fully conditioned and determined. As human beings, we have the freedom to change and often do, in an instant. While we can predict situational outcomes only within the broad framework of a large group statistical survey, the individual remains inherently unpredictable and self-determining. 
Change IS possible and sometimes happens whether we are aware of it or not. Contradictory to that small group conscience on social media, people can and do change, and they do it all the time, for the better.
With an understanding of personal strengths and weaknesses and an insight into self-awareness, are there tools and techniques we have discussed here that may then be applied to the overall workplace personality, character, and conscience?
- Nanay, B., “Know Thyself” It’s Not Just Silly Advice, in Psychology Today. 2018, Susex Publishers, LLC: online.
- Frankel, V., Man’s search for meaning. 1959/2006, Boston, MA: Beacon Press. p.131-139.