To Be a Strong Leader, Get to Know Your Achilles Heel
— February 3rd, 2022
Good leaders know what the weakest version of themselves looks like, and what others do to exploit it
Everyone has a weakness at work. For some of us, feelings of anxiety and burnout lead us to withdraw from others—we neglect tasks and people; we get accused of failing to follow through on our promises.
For others, these same feelings lead us to claw for power and control. Small acts of micromanagement, like “checking in” on employees 20 minutes after we’ve sent an email, provide temporary relief.
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There’s no shortage of advice on how to become a strong leader at work. But most of it is geared toward what you should do more of—the skills you need to communicate effectively, be hands-on (but not too hands-on), and to show the right amount of empathy at just the right moments.
Skills like these are critical, but leadership advice often misses a critical step: The best leaders not only know what it takes to make them shine, they also know what it takes to make them flounder.
Here are four steps you can take to identify your Achilles Heel at work and prevent it from harming your leadership practices.
All leadership traits have a light and dark side. Learn to identify both sides of yours.
We often select for leaders because they’re outliers on a set of traits we value. Leaders are more detail-oriented and conscientious than their counterparts, often by orders of magnitude.
But as social science has taught us, extreme traits that are indicators of strength can quickly turn into indicators of weakness, under the right circumstances.
Take for example the cool-headed leader with an uncanny ability to lower the temperature in a room during group conflict.
This skill is usually a good thing, but leaders who are good at reducing conflict can also be conflict-averse, even when some conflict is called for.
Bulldozers—employees who are willing to plow through meetings to get their way by any means necessary—can take advantage of the weak side of this leadership trait. Some do so by interrupting everyone on their team including leaders; others by forming alliances behind a leader’s back.
These behaviors, when left unchecked, can quickly lead to a loss of power and status at work. Before long, the conflict-averse leader is no longer listened to or respected.
The factors that bring out the dark side of a leadership trait vary from person to person. For some, it’s a particular type of employee who knows how to exploit the trait (like a bulldozer).
For others, it’s an emotional trigger, like anxiety, or feeling a loss of control. A leader who’s selected based on their strong attention to detail is great at putting out fires at the first sign of smoke.
But this trait often only works well for leaders who feel in control. Take that control away, and these leaders often apply their attention to detail to everyone and everything, turning them into micromanagers.
The good news is, the science of behavior change offers up a practical lesson of how to prevent our good traits from turning sour: First, learn to identify the people and the emotions that trigger the behavior.
Anytime you notice yourself slipping, write out the trigger. Was it a feeling, like burnout or anxiety, or was it the behavior of a particular person, like a bulldozer who challenged your power in front of others?
Over time you will see a pattern in yourself, and you will learn to identify what (or who) brings out the worst in you at work.
Develop an action plan of what you will do instead of the problematic behavior
The next step is to develop an action plan of what behaviors will replace the ones you want to avoid. Most of us have an instinct to try and avoid triggers altogether; remain in control if we feel micromanagement coming on, or get bulldozers off our teams so we don’t have to deal with having our power challenged at work.
But unfortunately, we often don’t have control over the circumstances that trigger us at work. A more effective goal is to be ready for these triggers when they come. Develop an action plan for what you will do instead of the behavior you’re trying to avoid, using a process that social scientists call implementation intentions.
Think of it a bit like replacing a cupcake with a healthy snack when dieting. At work, you learn that upon experiencing your trigger, you can replace the problem behavior with a better one.
In my research, implementation intentions work wonders on directing people towards positive, prosocial behaviors when they feel anxious. The goal in these studies wasn’t to reduce the anxiety, but to give people a new behavior they could try (e.g., make eye contact) when they felt it.
We can apply the same strategy to triggers at work. If feeling out-of-control brings out your micromanaging tendencies, learn an implementation intention that replaces micromanagement with a healthy behavior: “When I feel anxious at work, then I will take a 30-minute walk.”
It will save your employees loads of time and mental energy not answering your emails. You feel better, and your relationships are healthier for it.
Bulldozers are best handled by enlisting the help of others (especially those who are comfortable speaking up). An implementation intention such as, “When Kevin talks over me, I will ask Kila to weigh in” can help curb your tendency to shrink away from Kevin when he dominates the conversation.
Put structures in place to help support your action plans
Most of us need a little help when it comes to sustaining our goals over time. If you stock your fridge full of cupcakes it will be impossible to maintain that diet, even if carrots are in the veggie drawer.
The best way to maintain your goals at work is to put structures in places that make it easier for you to apply implementation intentions early and often.
But often the structures we need go against intuition.
Leaders with a strong attention to detail can turn into micromanagers if they feel out of touch. Frequent contact (in the form of short, 15-minute meetings) adds a layer of structure that prevents their micromanaging tendencies from taking hold.
That way, when they take that 30-minute walk, they know that the next short meeting with their employee is just around the corner.
Leaders who go weak in the knees around bulldozers work best when they’ve found a way to redirect a bulldozer’s behavior (e.g., by asking them to speak up for new employees whose voices aren’t heard), not cutting them out completely.
It can be hard to call on Kila to weigh in 30 times in a meeting. But if Kevin’s behavior is largely re-directed toward giving voice to others, calling on Kila the handful of times when Kevin bulldozes you is much more feasible. The goal is to create structures that allow your goal-directed behaviors to thrive.
Learn to identify the problematic people you come to rely on
The unfortunate truth is that one of the most sought-after leadership traits—the ability to delegate—can also be a leader’s demise. Strong leaders know the decisions that require careful attention, and those that they can hand off to a competent person on their team.
But unfortunately, there’s a handful of difficult people at work who know how to exploit this trait; they learn to spot a leader-in-need and come equipped with a strong pedigree and a good deal of trust. These folks work their magic by becoming invaluable.
Take, for example, the kiss-up-kick downer—that person who is held in high esteem by the boss, but tortures people at their own level and below. Even the strongest leaders can inadvertently hand over power to these people—they are often highly competent and save us time.
But handing over the reins completely, such as by having your favorite team member meet weekly with the new interns for you, can harm your relationships with team members down the road. By cutting off direct contact, kiss-up kick-downers learn to control your relationships.
No matter how overly worked you are, never rely on any one person to handle your communications for you. Most people at work don’t have this dark tendency, but they might, and there’s a good chance you won’t know it until it’s too late.
To be a strong leader at work, learn your weaknesses. Strong leaders can spot their own red flags from a mile away, and they put steps in place to prevent these red flags from becoming a reality.
They also learn how others exploit them when they’re down. Being a good leader isn’t just about learning new skills, it’s about learning how to control your responses to situations that bring out the worst in you.