A CEO raised by alcoholic parents develops a keen ability to observe and manage the emotions of his peers. A chronically anxious manager uses his ‘worrying’ skills to sense problems and opportunities before others do. An executive who had testicular cancer early in life uses his acquired empathy and authenticity to build great relationships with his millennial employees. These are real life examples of leaders turning their vulnerabilities into assets.
Let’s face it. We each have natural strengths and vulnerabilities. Sometimes we are born with them; other times we develop them through the ups and downs of life’s circumstances. Unfortunately, many of us view our vulnerabilities as weaknesses and feel shackled by the weight of these natural shortcomings. My experience observing and coaching good leaders is that they work hard to turn their vulnerabilities into strengths that give them a unique competitive edge.
One of my favorite examples these days is Tim Howard, former USA soccer team goalie and goalkeeper for USL championship team Memphis 901 FC. As the World Cup record holder of 16 saves in a single match, this seasoned and experienced goalie attributes his performance to being able to manage his emotions and live in the moment. “I don’t really get too high or too low,” as he has learned to lock himself into the present moment when guarding goal. He does not obsess over mistakes or errors. He does not look back with regrets. He just channels his competitive spirit into the right moments.
What is remarkable is that Tim copes everyday with Tourette syndrome – a neurological disorder where he suffers from involuntary tics, which can be either verbal or physical and can be wildly distracting. Imagine trying to guard against the best soccer scorers with your head churning and your body ticking!
Diagnosed as a child, Howard’s ability to overcome and deal with this condition on a daily basis has made him a stronger person and a stronger leader. He considers his biggest achievement that he has used this vulnerability to develop the skill of concentrating in the present moment. “It’s something that I live with every day. For me now in my life, it’s like breathing. Without it, I would feel very weird, so I’m happy and comfortable with it.”
The world has become fascinated with the strengths-based leadership movement. Identify your strengths, lock into a job that reinforces them, and stay away from your shortcomings and vulnerabilities. Frankly, I think this is too narrow a view on human potential. Clearly we have to leverage our strengths. But it is not good to get locked into our strengths box and stay focused on doing the same thing well every day. We miss the opportunities to learn something totally new and never learn the confidence and courage of turning our vulnerabilities into assets. Try it some time. You’ll like it.