“When it comes to describing their dark sides, 58 out of 60 leaders felt bound by the same rule – any weakness is perfectly admissible, so long as it is really a strength.” – Lucy Kellaway
There is no shortage of articles about the desirable qualities and characteristics of a leader, but relatively fewer listing traits that are detrimental to leadership. Recently, while reading Lessons from the Top, I came across just such a list. On page 200, Esler introduces us to Financial Times (FT) journalist Lucy Kellaway who, in 2011, wrote about business leaders’ views of their own strengths and weaknesses.
As introduced in Lessons from the Top: “in the 18 months from the beginning of 2010, the FT had asked 60 business leaders twenty questions. One key question was ‘What are your three worst features?'” Quoting Kellaway’s story:
“When it comes to describing their dark sides, 58 out of 60 leaders felt bound by the same rule – any weakness is perfectly admissible, so long as it is really a strength. They almost all cite impatience, perfectionism, and being too demanding…What is particularly interesting about this mass outpouring of faux weaknesses is that there is no difference between men and women, and no difference between Americans and Europeans. All are as bad as each other.”
Personally, I do consider my impatience to be a genuine character weakness, and a high school teacher once gave me a book on how perfectionism could be a detriment. That being said, if I was in a job interview and someone asked me what my biggest weaknesses were, then I’d feel a right weiner if I said, “Well, I’m a bit impatient and I expect too much out of my team”. Of course, that still might be better than Homer Simpson’s response to the same question: “It takes me a long time to learn anything, I’m kind of a goof-off, a little stuff starts disappearing from the workplace”.
So how should you answer the weakness question? Interview guides tell you things like, “Focus on Unessential Weaknesses”…in other words, it’s OK to admit a weakness, so long as it’s only passingly related to the job! Personally, I find this advice to be a bit … lame? I think I’d rather find a real weakness, admit to it, and if permitted add how I’m working to overcome it. Maybe bolster that by finding an example or two in the past of weaknesses that, in my mind, I’ve overcome. Perhaps I’m being naïve, but I believe that in life you can’t really go wrong if you’re honest and genuine.
I think I’d rather find a real weakness, admit to it, and if permitted add how I’m working to overcome it. Maybe bolster that by finding an example or two in the past of weaknesses that, in my mind, I’ve overcome.
However, if you’re feeling unimaginative, you could always pick from this list; from her studies, Kellaway drew up a list of the seven most common deadly sins of leadership…
- They are control freaks.
- They are vain.
- They are ditherers.
- They don’t listen.
- They are bullies.
- They are afraid of conflict.
- They can’t do small talk.
(as quoted in Lessons from the Top, my copy of which has “me!” written right next to that bottom point)
I must say, that’s a fine looking list. I’ve worked for leaders who are characterized by some of those traits and with others who are characterized by some of those traits, but thank goodness I haven’t worked with or for anyone who’s got them all!
If you’re a leader, it might be prudent to ask yourself if any of those apply to you. Or maybe think about it like this: if you asked your team to assess you, do you think the responses would be the same? It’s in your best interests to be honest, and the answers (if the respondents are truthful) might be a harsh surprise because, in Kellaway’s words, “A decade of psycho-babble, coaching and 360-degree feedback has made no difference…people never speak truth to power.” (as quoted in Lessons from the Top – p201)
Kellaway believes this is all really a shame because, in her words, “We like people better when they wear their blemishes openly. It makes them seem more human.” (as quoted in Lessons from the Top – p201).