Bridge over ocean
1 November 2013 CFA Institute Journal Review

Too Much of a Good Thing (Digest Summary)

The author examines the counterintuitive viewpoint that leaders should guard against overstressing their strengths so that the strengths do not become weaknesses.

What’s Inside?

The author discusses the findings of three researchers who argue against the notion that “more is better” when it comes to using one’s strengths. The researchers claim that the overuse of strengths can cause them to devolve into weaknesses. For example, forcefulness can develop into bullying, and niceness can become indecision.

How Is This Article Useful to Practitioners?

Much conventional wisdom—business literature and the theory of comparative advantage—supports the value of individuals focusing on what they excel at. But overfocusing on their virtues can lead to those virtues becoming vices. The author invokes a familiar analogy—a manager is like a hammer, prone to tackling every problem as if it were a nail—to explain how the overuse of virtues can be limiting.

Some might think that President Obama’s giftedness as a speaker has displaced hands-on governance, for example. The problem of strengths becoming weaknesses is especially acute when managers continue to focus on the strengths that lifted them into senior positions without considering the utility of those strengths at higher levels of responsibility.

Some research calls this concept “the paradox of excellence”; it causes an individual “to do the wrong thing well rather than the right thing poorly”—micromanaging subordinates (especially those in the manager’s previous position) rather than managing with a big-picture outlook.

Other research contends that abilities likely to be overused are “smarts”—skills picked up from business school or consultancy settings, such as analyzing data. Such research asserts that some of the worst business scandals in recent years have involved very smart people. For example, Jeffrey Skilling at Enron overemphasized smarts and overlooked good character and common sense.

A solution proposed by researchers is to seek feedback mechanisms so that individuals can be aware when they are starting to fall into this trap. But the author counters that many leaders are successful—Richard Branson is mentioned—because they go “over the top” in stretching their strengths. Leadership skills are “context dependent”; for example, Margaret Thatcher’s strident leadership was exactly what Britain needed during her time in office.

In the final analysis, the author opines that what is often sorely needed is a hard-to-measure, almost-instinctive quality: judgment, or knowing when to charge ahead without restraints and when to curb the drive to do so.

Abstractor’s Viewpoint

The author makes a compelling argument that a leader’s strengths can quickly become flaws if not tempered to suit the circumstances. And in the drive for measurable precision in business, it is easy to lose sight of the value of judgment.

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