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August 16, 1995

Dueling Realities: Escaping the Pigeonhole that Padlocks Your Potential

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The fifteenth century’s Renaissance Humanism movement began as Italian do-it-alls, or as Leon Battista Alberti suggested, “A man can do all things if but wills them.” Believing man to be the center of the universe, it was natural to chase “all knowledge” in pursuit of becoming what the Greeks called a “polymath”—or, if you prefer the Latin, “Homo Universalis” (a universal man).
A gentleman living in the Renaissance era was expected to speak multiple languages, play a musical instrument, and even write a bit of poetry. The idea of the universal person stemmed from an approach to education that did not specialize in single subjects. Rather, it spanned science, philosophy, and theology. To attend university—a term that was coined in this era—was to attain broad expertise, to become a well-versed citizen, and to maintain the idea that the human person can and should seek to master several fields.
But the idea that someone can obtain ultimate polymath success like a Michelangelo or Francis Bacon is ridiculous. No one can be brilliant at everything. We can, however, strive for the Renaissance ideal of gaining a broad knowledge base.
What can the modern business leader learn from the polymath? How would you react to a Fast Company cover story titled: “The Drive to be the Omni-Competent Leader”?
You might respond like many in today’s business world who claim that being a specialist is the most effective way to lead. A common theme among management and leadership gurus tells us to find our strength and not waste time becoming something we’re not.
Why dabble in poetry since you’re no Wordsworth? Who cares about science since you need only concern yourself with the bottom line, right? After all, you can hire or outsource to compensate for your weaknesses. Be a specialist; pick an area to be great at, and go after it full throttle.
Furthermore, as leaders, we should identify and cultivate the strengths of our direct reports rather than their weaknesses. Lord Colin Sharman, chairman of Aegis Group, put it this way: “A weakness is there: it’s something you have to take into account, but the way in which you get superior performance out of a group of people is to figure out what they’re good at and then get them into a role that uses that to the maximum advantage.”
This advice carries merit. But eventually an unrelenting adversary punches it hard in the face: Reality.
Only focusing on what you’re good at and only highlighting your strengths does not work in the diverse demands of today’s integrated and competitive world. As Batman learned, it won’t sustain a career—not in Gotham City, not in the toy stores, and not in the dog-eat-dog streets of the modern marketplace.
The “strengths” approach presents a great danger for leaders because it pigeonholes them in ways that padlock their potential. And they typically never see the jailer coming. It’s the classic example of a glass ceiling, one they can’t see and can’t break through. They advanced in the earlier stages of their careers precisely because they were accomplished in a few specific and related skill sets. It worked then, so why fix it now?
As they rose into positions of greater influence, these leaders would tell themselves, “Oh, I may not be much of a manager, but where I really excel is at the big picture of vision.” Or, “True, I don’t do a good job of administration, but boy, can I sell.” Or, “OK, so what if I am a jerk? I know how to make people get things done, don’t I?”
They would excuse themselves from their weaknesses by spotlighting their strengths. But their singular focus developed blind spots—blind spots that can send the best of careers into a ditch.
There are two things wrong with this whole line of thinking. First, focusing on strengths tends to work on your personal efficiency. As I said earlier, personal efficiency is a great tool to possess on your leadership tool belt. But it’s not the only tool. You can’t build a house with just a hammer and nails. You need more tools, more skill sets. You can be the fastest nail-hammering carpenter in the world and still not be able to build a house. I want you to be efficient and to do things right. But even more than that, I want you to be an effective leader who works at developing a quality tool belt.
Second, focusing on strengths misses the point of effective leadership. If you want to be a top-tier leader, you must develop personal wholeness that focuses on how you can empower and equip others to reach their potential. If you do nothing but hone your own strengths, at some point you’ll discover a serious lack in your ability to lead others well.

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