Finding the golden mean of leadership


Robert E. Kaplan & Robert B. Kaiser, “Fear Your Strengths: What You Are Best at Could Be your Biggest Problem,” Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2013, 113 pp. $19.95.

Watch out for what you’re best at, counsels Robert E. Kaplan, co-author with Robert B. Kaiser of “Fear Your Strengths,” the latest in a series of books he has written or co-written on management leadership skills. Mr. Kaplan, founding partner and president of the New York consulting firm Kaplan DeVries, Inc., summers in Chilmark and is a member of the Cleaveland House poetry group.

A pioneer in management counseling, Mr. Kaplan helped develop executive coaching at the Center for Creative Leadership before it developed into a separate field of human resources. He also devised an early form of 360-degree feedback, a process in which a manager is assessed by his closest work colleagues.

Subtitled “What You Are Best at Could Be Your Biggest Problem,” “Fear Your Strengths” is a slender, concise volume, published with the Center for Creative Leadership, which advises top management types on how to fine-tune their strengths as leaders. By arguing that leadership strengths can work against an individual, the authors counter the strengths movement popularized by Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton in their book, “Now Discover Your Strengths.”

“Coming to grips with the need to modulate your strengths is some of the hardest development work you will ever do,” the authors say in the book. They draw on examples from the management world and lace their advice with analogies from literature and sports. Kaplan and Kaiser base their conclusions on research as well as the practical experience drawn from years of consulting management leaders. Their patented Leadership Versatility Index has allowed them to survey co-workers in a leader’s organization and look for flaws in leadership styles.

Much of “Fear Your Strengths” depends on explorations of opposites. Enron’s Jeffrey Skilling provides an example of lopsided leadership because as a promoter of big ideas like turning natural gas contracts into financial instruments for trading, he ignored the other side of the equation: the nuts and bolts of implementation. The authors use the Chinese concept of yin-yang as a dynamic duality to set up a series of core leadership opposites. A good leader needs to be forceful but must also be enabling; a strategic outlook must be combined with an operational one.

Most leaders end up lopsided — a favorite label for the authors — in terms of these leadership attributes. The golden mean for leadership in these categories is versatility. “Fear Your Strengths” draws on underlying psychological concerns such as anxiety to look at the mindsets that make leaders lopsided. It may be a matter of thinking that more is automatically better. Problems can arise from having a skewed mental model or what Kaplan and Kaiser call a faulty mental gauge.

“In the go-all-out world that most leaders inhabit, they are far more comfortable with behavioral change that requires them to do more of something, not less,” say the authors. They propose “dialing back” to modulate a strength. The first step comes with recognizing what the leader overdoes in an external sense. Here physical cues — something as simple as jiggling a leg — may help a leader dial back instead of overdoing. The golfer’s term, “swing thoughts,” those individual corrections used to correct form, also can help leaders dial back. Successful dialing back also depends on internal monitoring through recognizing psychological problems like perfectionism or fear. One important tool for dialing back identified by “Fear Your Strengths” is the counterweight, a person or process that helps a leader avoid overuse of a strength.

In the final chapter, the authors offer three ways to maximize leadership versatility. First and foremost, “You must unflinchingly reconcile yourself to the reality of who you are and how you lead,” they say. From that follows the need to test your behavior and then find ways to offset the tendency to return to lopsidedness.

By relying on a set of easy-to-understand labels to explain leadership behavior, developing them through simple and straightforward language, and then reinforcing them through illustrations drawn from the management world, literature and sports, “Fear Your Strengths” provides an easy-to-use guide to individuals in many kinds of organizations.