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Is Focusing on Your Strengths Sabotaging Your Success?

Julia "Chinyere" Oparah explains how knowing your derailers is an essential superpower for every leader in higher ed.

If you were raised a person of color, a woman, an immigrant, queer or trans, working class, or any other category that is routinely disparaged in this society, chances are you have internalized negative and undermining messages. You know the ones: “You won’t get that job, so don’t even try” or “You’re not qualified to be in the room, so keep your head down and hope nobody notices.” Or, most harmful of all, “You have to work twice as hard as your peers or you’ll never fit in.”

In order to tune out these messages, we are told, we need to think positively and focus on our strengths. We can never admit to or show our weaknesses.

For many years, I lived in what urban planners call a marginal neighborhood, and every weekday morning, chanting voices echoed up the hill to my home. It was children in the local public school playground repeating after their head teacher: I am capable. I am intelligent. I believe in myself. I can do anything!

I loved hearing those innocent and hopeful voices.

But I also knew that, on the other side of town, kids in the prestigious private school weren’t chanting. They didn’t need to. They were not the inheritors of generations of disrespect and dehumanization. Instead they had inherited the privilege of seeing themselves as fully human, in all their imperfection and complication. And so, they enthusiastically embraced their weaknesses and inconsistencies as opportunities to learn and grow.

When we focus insistently on our strengths, we end up trying to stamp out our weaknesses. We lose the ability to take a calm, generous look at our flaws. We become defensive to feedback and almost feel that we will crumple if we let it in. After all, our own inner critic is just looking for an opportunity to leap in and castigate us.

But there is another way. What if we befriended our weaknesses? What if they actually held seeds to a more sustainable and grounded sense of confidence and efficacy?

Recognizing Derailers

Take a moment to write down one of your strengths as a leader.

Maybe you noted that you are caring, collaborative and empathetic. Or perhaps you pointed to your commitment for excellence and your drive to make your workplace and the world a better place.

If you have successfully applied for a leadership position in the past few years, you probably have a long list of strengths that you can talk about with conviction and animation. It may be a surprise to learn that your most cherished strengths have the capacity to undermine your impact and even derail your career, but that is precisely what leadership scholars Robert and Joyce Hogan argued in their pathbreaking research on “derailers”—the “dark side” of personality traits that we often think of as positive.

So let’s take one of those strengths. You are caring and compassionate. Perhaps you’re proud to be a fixer, a remover of obstacles. Colleagues consider you the person to go to when institutional bureaucracy gets in the way or they’ve been treated unfairly. Students come to you when all else fails, and somehow you find a way to delay their being dropped from classes for nonpayment of tuition or you get them an emergency grant.

But your strength has a shadow side: a set of tendencies that can derail your success and undermine your impact. There is a never-ending list of problems and inequities for you to fix, and you simply can’t get to it all. You get snowed under, and instead of being an enabler of solutions, you become a bottleneck.

Or perhaps you keep the people around you in a state of perpetual dependence instead of empowering them to find their own solutions. And you have to work longer and longer hours to keep up with the demand you have created by being everybody’s hero.

As a former provost at a struggling institution that ultimately merged with a larger university, I know how hard it is to take a step back from the relentless demands of students, faculty and staff during times of fiscal challenges and internal political conflict. But the more I tried to resolve what were essentially structural problems by working long hours to fix problems at the individual level, the more I neglected my own well-being and, at the same time, sheltered faculty and staff from having to share in dealing with the harsh realities of an institution in crisis. No matter how much we love our college or university, we simply cannot fix deep-rooted problems or rescue institutions single-handedly.

Not a superhero or a fixer? Then perhaps you are a champion for change.

Your passion is infectious, and you inspire those around you with a powerful story about how your institution can help create justice and equity for all. You are the person people think of when they use the word “leader”: charismatic, energizing and visionary.

Maybe you have such a powerful vision that you inspire the institution and those in your org chart to throw themselves into the work as they seek to right the world’s wrongs. Your sense of urgency is a powerful motivator and jolts the institution out of complacency. But after a while, you and your team begin to feel jaded and burned out. You all simply can’t work hard or fast enough to realize your ambitious vision right now.

Or perhaps you are big on vision but struggle with execution. The details just don’t capture you in the way blue-sky thinking does, and you don’t have patience for the long, slow work of turning the ship around.

If those two strengths don’t resonate, then try this one: you set the gold standard. Everything that comes out of your office has the stamp of excellence. People trust you to get the job done—and done right—the first time! You’re a stickler for details, and your unit is known for high standards and continuous improvement.

What’s the common derailer here? Ever had a micromanager as a supervisor? If you have, you get the picture. A commitment to excellence can easily tip over into nitpicking and hovering over those around you. These are not leadership tendencies that lead to motivated teams or happy workplaces.

Derailer Triggers

Every strength has embedded within it a shadow side that has the potential to sabotage your success. But these derailers do not show up all the time. So what triggers a derailer?

You should look out for five main triggers:

Exhaustion. When we are working overly long hours, we become overtired and tend to default to survival strategies that no longer serve us.

Juggling competing demands. When we are facing incessant demands from an array of stakeholders, we have less capacity for insight and wisdom in complex situations.

Moving too fast. When we run from meeting to meeting, ending packed days on the go with hours of email catch-up, we have less ability to pause and make mindful choices.

Feeling under attack. When our limbic system—the part of our brain that governs the fight-or-flight response—is triggered, we revert to black-and-white thinking and our responses lack nuance.

Feeling justified. When “they” are the problem, we are more likely to lean into our way of doing things, regardless of the consequences for ourselves and others.

But, I hear you exclaim, “It’s impossible to avoid those triggers! In fact, I experience at least one of them pretty much every day. And besides, if you worked with the [insert: faculty members, administrators, trustees] at my institution, you would understand that they actually are the problem!”

You are right, we cannot avoid our triggers. When we work in challenging situations and/or embattled institutions, we are almost always working in contexts that are not conducive to showing up as our best selves. And on some days, we are in full survival mode amid chaos, crisis and attack.

That’s precisely why it’s so important to get honest with yourself and get to know your derailers. (Chances are, the people around you already do.)

Accepting Your Derailers

Perhaps you are thinking, “OK, I admit I may have one or two weaknesses. And yes, my context doesn’t allow me to avoid the things that trigger those behaviors. So what do I do about my derailers and how can I act from my best leadership self?” In my own experience and in my work supervising and coaching academic leaders, I have identified some strategies that will set you up for success.

First, remember that when you overextend yourself and neglect your bodily needs, you trigger your derailers.

Do you create stress and discomfort in your body by going for long periods without eating, going to the bathroom or moving from your computer screen? Treat yourself like a human being, bring healthy snacks and take regular breaks to eat them.

Do you spend an unproductive hour at the computer at the end of the day when you are too tired to get much done but feel too behind to wrap up and step away? Take a breath, acknowledge that this hour would be better spent getting some rest and go home to see your family or walk the dog. Whatever it is, you’ll get it done more efficiently and creatively in the morning.

Second, experiment with a practice of noticing when you start drawing on the shadow side of your leadership tool kit.

If you can, point it out to yourself gently and compassionately. Take a note of what you did, what happened immediately beforehand and what the consequences were. You will gradually create mindfulness and open up spaciousness from which to make choices rather than acting automatically.

Third, identify a behavior you want to change and practice your new behavior. In The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier suggests that you write down the situation that triggers your derailer and what you will do instead. For example, “When someone comes into my office with a problem, instead of jumping into fixing mode, I will pause and ask them: So what ideas do you have to fix this?”

And then work with an accountability partner, mentor or executive coach to practice, refine and normalize your new behavior.

A final word: please take a moment to thank your derailers.

When we gain awareness of a behavior that is not serving us, we can get very frustrated with ourselves whenever we see ourselves doing it again. But remember, our derailers are all part of the tool kit that allowed us to survive what life threw our way and to achieve leadership success.

When we appreciate all parts of ourselves, we allow ourselves to evolve and change. We become calm and confident, knowing that there is nothing anyone else can notice about us that we do not already know. We can receive, accept or reject criticism, secure in a grounded sense of who we are and how we lead.

And best of all, we insist on the freedom to show up at work with our full imperfect and complicated humanity, and we model that freedom for others.

Julia "Chinyere" Oparah is an executive coach, strategist and educator. She has served in senior leadership roles in the nonprofit and higher education sectors, including dean, provost and vice president for academic affairs for over three decades and is the founder of the Center for Liberated Leadership.

Reprinted from Inside Higher Ed, Career Advice, March 04, 2024

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