Leader, Know Thyself

Eric Stutzman

Often when we look back at our life experiences, we can see signs of our strengths emerging early on. I vividly remember getting into an intense conversation with a good friend one day in high school. He felt passionately about the issue and so did I, but our debate remained respectful. At the end of the conversation, he looked at me and said with admiration, “Eric, you should be a diplomat someday.” While I no longer recall the content of our conversation, I remember wondering why he said that. Over the years since that time, I have learned that one of my greatest strengths lies in communicating about difficult things in a way that respects and makes space for others’ perspectives and feelings. I have come to rely on that strength in my leadership journey, as well as on other strengths that I have discovered since then.

I have also discovered some things that I am not as good at. If a project requires someone to really focus and dive deep into a technical subject, it would be better to ask someone other than me to do that. When my leadership team is asked to come to a meeting with lists of ideas, mine is generally the shortest list. If you need someone to take command of a situation, there are others who are more comfortable doing this than me. It’s not that I can’t do these things, but rather that it’s less natural for me.

Improve Your Self-Knowledge

Developing self-knowledge is a notion that is deeply entrenched in Western society. From the time of the ancient Greeks (and possibly before), philosophers have been extolling the virtues of “knowing thyself.” However, developing self-knowledge is not an automatic process – it requires intentional effort and focus. But I believe the effort is worthwhile and that all leaders need to know their strengths and weaknesses for two reasons. First, through self-knowledge we learn how we can best contribute to our organizations – when I offer to do something in an area where I have strength, I will likely shine. Second, through self-knowledge we also learn what kinds of people we need on our teams to complement our strengths or make up for our weaknesses. For each of my areas of weakness, I can easily name people on my team I can rely on because they have strengths in those areas.

Through self-knowledge we learn what kinds of people we need on our teams to complement our strengths or make up for our weaknesses.

Learn Your Strengths and Weaknesses

One way to think about strengths and weaknesses is to consider where you have aptitude ­– an area of skill or a subject that you learn easily or that comes naturally for you. This could include being organized, gauging people’s emotions, or even decorating your home. For me, one area I have a lot of aptitude in is communication. It is relatively easy for me to learn new ways of communicating, whether that is speaking in front of a group, chatting with a stranger, or having a difficult conversation. I also have aptitude in working with someone else’s idea or plan and making it stronger. It’s more natural for me to work with existing systems to improve them than to come up with a brand-new idea or process.

On the flip side, you can recognize your weaknesses by thinking about skill sets or subjects that you find uninteresting or difficult. For instance, I have never been very interested in the mechanics of how things work. If my bike needs a tune up, I take it to the bike shop. I could learn to do it, but I would find the process frustrating, not rewarding. When a technical issue comes up at the office, I am more than happy to let others deal with it who find that type of work interesting.

Knowing your weaknesses is as important as knowing your strengths. When you know where you are not strong, you can use that knowledge to build your team by asking for help and leaning on the strengths of others. This gives your team members a chance to shine and contribute using their strengths. Of course, for this to be possible, you also have to know the strengths and weaknesses of your team members. Through your own process of learning to know yourself, you can intentionally lead others to do the same by example, discussion, and invitation. At our office, we invite staff to reflect on their strengths at their annual goal-setting meetings with their supervisors. We also invite staff to learn and share about themselves in our annual team development session.

Use Tools to Learn About Yourself

In my quest to know myself, I have found it helpful to rely on tools that others have developed for this purpose. There are many great options, but I have found two particularly helpful. The first is the CliftonStrengths Assessment. This tool looks at 34 areas of strength and ranks your personal strengths after you complete an online assessment. These strengths are in the four broad categories of Executing, Influencing, Relationship Building, and Strategic Thinking.

The other tool that I have found helpful is called the Enneagram. The Enneagram is a way of categorizing human personalities into types and then exploring their related strengths and weaknesses. It has been in development for hundreds of years, so there are a variety of books and online tools to explore this model. What I find helpful about it is the way it focuses on how you think and act when you are at your best, an average level of functioning, or your worst.

Learn About Yourself By Listening to Others

I have also found it helpful to listen to other people to find out about myself. Other people see me in ways that I do not see myself, especially those who I spend a lot of time with. They see what I do well, and they see where I struggle. To listen, we need to put away our pride. My spouse would tell you that I get things done quickly in the kitchen, but that I sometimes lack sufficient care and attention to detail that would make the result a little better. I know that I am also like that at work sometimes. I work quickly and get a lot done, but I miss some of the important details. This is hard for me to admit, but I know it is true. And that knowledge means that I need to humble myself, ask for forgiveness from time to time, and enlist the help of others who see the details and know how to slow down.

The journey to self-knowledge is not an effortless one, but it is worthwhile. It is not easy because it requires us to be truthful to ourselves and to others. It means not undervaluing or overvaluing our strengths; and at the same time, not minimizing our weaknesses. We should focus on becoming the best we can be, given our unique set of aptitudes. The journey to self-knowledge is worthwhile because it helps us become clear about who we are and more confident in how we can best lead within our organization.

The journey to self-knowledge is not an effortless one, but it is worthwhile.

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Author: Eric Stutzman
CEO, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership

This blog is an excerpt from ACHIEVE’s book, Don’t Blame the Lettuce: Insights to Help You Grow as a Leader and Nurture Your Workplace CultureEric is also the co-author of ACHIEVE’s book, The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work. These books are available on our website.

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