The downside of excellence

High performing leaders can undermine themselves by being afraid of showing their weaknesses.

Many smart professionals don’t do as well as expected and plateau in their careers because they get anxious about their performance which impedes their progress.

That’s according to Thomas J & Sarah DeLong in an article called “The Paradox of Excellence”  (HBR of June 2011). The Harvard professor and his psychiatrist daughter say many high performers would rather do the wrong things well than do the right things badly. Because they are used to success they may shy away from really testing opportunities because they carry risk or require new skills and would rather preserve their image.

High achievers are often independent-minded and don’t easily ask for help and people may tell them what they think they want to hear anyway. So the trick is to have a good support network that will give you honest and constructive feedback.

We know leaders often move on before they experience failure so are not prepared for it and don’t  learn from it –  cynics might say they move on before they are found out. The DeLongs suggest that you need to  expose yourself to new learning experiences that make you feel uncertain or even incompetent and to remember these are temporary feelings and can lead to greater professional ability. That all sounds admirable but I wonder if that is really possible when share values seem to rule corporate decision-making?

They also identify behaviours that can help you succeed but also get in the way. They say classic high achievers are:

  • driven to get results – but may be so involved that they don’t let colleagues know what they are doing and think helping others is a waste of time
  • doers– they believe nobody else can do things as well as they. They make poor delegators and may micromanage
  • highly motivated – but because they take all aspects of their job seriously may not distinguish between what is urgent and what is important
  • need positive feedback – they care what others think but may obsess over criticism
  • competitive – but may be obsessed with comparisons with others leading to a sense of insufficiency
  • passionate about work – but intense highs can be followed by crippling lows
  • safe risk takers – they won’t damage the company by risky moves but may shy away from the unknown and miss opportunities
  • guilt-ridden – they are driven to produce but no matter what they accomplish may feel they aren’t doing enough
The DeLongs are describing leaders and professionals who are behaving more cautiously then they should and thereby hampering their careers. On the opposite side of the coin there are those who over-do their strengths and begin to demonstrate the dark side of their personalities, often with devastating results for themselves and people around them.
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And they are not the first to suggest that leaders should show their weaknesses. Goffee and Morgan made the same point, also in HBR, in 2000 although they cautioned that leaders should do so selectively.
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