It may not be a typical thing to discuss superheroes in a business context. But today, we’re going to go for it.
Even if we’re not into “comic books,” most of us are probably familiar with a bit of their mythology. A pop culture fascination with superheroes has come screaming into popular media in the past two decades, pushing the once-relegated-to-the-bedroom-of-nerds fanfare squarely into the mainstream. By this point, you’ve almost certainly seen Spider-Man, Heroes, Smallville, one of the five Superman movies, one of the X-Men films, Thor, Captain America, or any number of the other “superhero” flicks released recently.
In addition to delivering a boatload of melodramatic fun and action, in any superhero story we inevitably find the protagonist struggling with how to use his or her superpower: the thing that makes them different from the “normal” folks.
Despite our lack of wall-crawling ability, x-ray vision, or amazing powers of flight, this isolation and confusion of purpose is a feeling we can relate to. No matter how connected we are, we all have moments of insecure loneliness.
We all feel “left out” or “not normal” from time to time.
The problem with this is that “normal” is an illusion. Human beings are ineffably unique, and we see the world through our own completely individualized lenses. We do our best to respect these differences, but they also create some tension — and isolation. We are naturally skewed to do some things really well, and other things… well, not so much. This is OK — and the way it should be — but it often makes us feel like we have these “superpowers” (things we’re really good at) and we’re not quite sure how to harness their power.
(Even if you don’t feel like you’ve got any superpowers, you do. Hang with me for a moment… it will make more sense in a few paragraphs.)
This is a central, and often missed, component of how to best lead from one’s strengths. In a nutshell, it is the areas of our biggest strengths which cast the largest shadows. It is our top talents that give us the most clues into some of our most fragile tendencies.
True, my natural abilities — the talent that lies within my proclivities, my paradigms, my lens, my worldview — are the areas which have the greatest potential for exponential growth. But they are my largest potential area for doing harm, as well.
Let me explain. For me, the most potential for damage does not come with me trying to do the things that are outside my natural talent circle. I am naturally terrible at those things, and in truth, I should try my best to avoid them because I will fail there more often than not. (Ideally, I should partner with someone strong in these areas.) The greatest harm I can do to the world doesn’t typically come from those “weak” things (remember, they don’t come naturally to me, and I am much less likely to even attempt them). No, the greatest damage I can do is by not learning how to control my strength.
Here’s a bit of info on me: I am relentless in my pursuit of excellence. I have an almost palpable need to be successful. In addition, I am obscenely idealistic. I believe SO intensely in the potential of humanity, I feel SO passionately about the good that people can accomplish, that I am simply unwilling to accept the status quo. It’s like my soul simply rejects that as an option (dramatic, I realize… but true).
These qualities I have can be good things — but only IF I can learn to leverage them properly. I have learned, through much pain, that if I do not control the rampant idealism within me, for example, it can overtake everything else I feel and make me hopelessly, incessantly discontent. I have also learned to take on projects very carefully, because if a feeling of success is not found there, my talent will almost “force” me to rationalize an abandonment of the situation.
Of course, these talents of mine can be amazing strengths. If my peers (and my organization) can put up with a fanatical drive to be the best in the world, I will help make everything around me successful. And that’s good for everyone!
This is where it comes back to the superheroes. In our work at Strengths Doctors, we often make the admittedly melodramatic comparison of talent/strength to “superpowers.” There is always an intrinsic paradoxical tension with “power,” be it an otherworldly gift from the yellow sun (that’s what gives Superman his power, btw) or your almost-as-unbelievable ability to make instantaneous connections with people, be a brainstorming genius, or be able to genuinely feel what others do.
Those things are amazing. But the things that give us the most power also deliver the ability to do incredible damage. Think about it this way: Superman’s strength certainly comes in handy when he’s fighting a foe, but it requires more control than anything else when he’s shaking hands, petting dogs, or making an omelet. (You were wondering when we’d get there.)
Our strengths can be our yellow sun, or they can be our kryptonite.
Our power can be overwhelming — sometimes almost unbearable — until we learn how to manage it.
Perhaps the most relevant quote from a comic-based film is also one of the most famous. In Spider-man, Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben says to him: “With great power comes great responsibility.“
I imagine you’ve known some leaders that haven’t been able to control their abilities. It’s almost like they are constantly running over themselves, right? These are the leaders that make decisions without any consideration or strategy, boss people around unnecessarily, take on far too many projects and get ulcers, and never take a firm stance on direction. Most times, this is not a lack of strength — it is the opposite. It is a strength in overdrive. It is unbridled talent at its worst, and it will destroy a person’s leadership and, eventually, the organization with it.
It is an astronomical misstep to miss this component of leading from our strengths: choosing to build a strengths-based environment means controlling our power as much as it does maximizing our strengths. Our greatest areas of weaknesses don’t come from the bottom of our talents; they come from the same top themes our strengths come from.
With great power does truly come great responsibility. And with practice, we can use the knowledge of our top talents for insights into how to leverage their power for the good of our leadership development and the health of our organization.
Kill The Jargon by Josh Allan Dykstra on March 29th, 2010
Quarterly Returns Must Die by Josh Allan Dykstra on October 24th, 2014
How To Build An Astonishingly Great Startup Culture on Forbes by Josh Allan Dykstra on July 9th, 2013