In my early 20s, I took a presentation skills class at Oracle Corporation. At that time, I was terrified of public speaking. I was a recently graduated french major working in a multi-billion dollar company and I had no idea what I was doing. So I was a bit timid going in to the class.
I will never forget the instructor. He closely observed each person, and when he gave feedback, he started by telling us what he saw as our unique gift. He wanted to help us be authentically brilliant. I was in awe of how he truly saw each one of us and called out our essence.
When it was my turn, he told me
"You have an edge. And your wit and warmth draws us in."
Then he added, "And you have 'spaghetti arms.' (his term for my dangling limbs that had no idea where they should be).
Now THAT was inspiring and useful feedback. That combination (minus the spaghetti arms) helps me get and keep attention, build trust quickly, and help people talk about anything that's bothering them without risk of judgment. I like to think that I create a light-filled container for dark topics.
If you've ever been part of an anonymous 360 feedback survey, you know what it's like to look at that report. In addition to confusing and conflicting anonymous comments, you get data that's averaged and summarized in a bar graph by behavior area.
Where does your eye tend to land: on the high bars or low bars?
Most of us ignore the strengths, and zone in on what seems to not be working.
Since we have brains wired for negativity, comparison, fitting in, and pleasing others so we stay in the tribe, it's no surprise that we focus on our lows.
But research presented in the book, The Extraordinary Leader, by Zenger and Folkman, shows that focusing on your weaknesses is almost always a poor investment of your time and effort.
Plus, it feels really crappy.
The one exception is when a weakness is core to your success and is in the 30th percentile or lower (e.g. getting things done, creating psychological safety, following through, money laundering...)
And most of us have room to grow our strengths. Their research showed that you got the most positive impact (internally and externally) when you pull a strength into the rare top 10%.
To help people get the idea, I sometimes show city skylines from well-known cities. I once asked a group to identify Dallas (I was in Austin at the time) and they could not do it. When I put Seattle on the screen, they got it immediately. Why? Seattle, as we all know, has one stand-out strength. Dallas, while lovely, kinda looks like other cities (no offense to Dallas). It takes fewer than 4 strengths to be in the top 10% of all leaders. (Please don't get me started on San Francisco's skyline. I used to show it as an example of brilliance, but now it's gone into "Look at me! LOOK AT ME!" territory. I'd rather gaze upon lovely, brilliant, quirky London, or elegant, minimalist Paris).
To be among the best in your field, it only takes two strengths in the top 70th percentile if they are considered a powerful combination. One example: technical ability and communication skills. Either one is great, but partnered up, they are rare and fantastic.
This doesn't apply to only corporate leaders. Anyone can benefit from this knowledge and focus.
For me, one of my superpowers is creating. I love to use words and research to create tales and models that will help people see things in a new, helpful way, and take action to make their lives better. But when I combine that with execution, that's when my strength becomes brilliant. My creations have a bigger impact if I offer them up to the masses. That takes effort that doesn't come naturally to me, but is becoming easier.
Do you even know how to identify your own strengths?
Do you take them for granted?
Listen in on my podcast if you'd like to learn more about how to identify your strengths, how to know if you need to build up a weakness, and where to invest your precious, amazing energy.
You are one-of-a-kind.
One of your jobs on this planet is to be the most brilliant version of you.
Another job is to enjoy the ride.
And you can only do that by leveraging the super-powers you've been given.
And avoiding the kryptonite/spaghetti arms that are getting in the way of your brilliant contribution.
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