Most people are probably familiar with the children’s tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  Goldilocks becomes lost in the woods, finds a seemingly empty house, and lets herself in.  Once inside, she begins to make herself at home to the comforts that she sees.  And then you know what happens:  one bowl of porridge is too hot, one is too cold, one is just right; one chair is too big, one is too small, one is just right; one bed is too hard, one is too soft, one is just right.  I have found a similar dilemma in the struggle with balancing personal leadership strengths and weaknesses, and in compensating for my weaknesses.

Early on in my leadership, I believed that the people around me needed to think that I had no weaknesses, otherwise my leadership would not succeed.  So I did everything I could to deny and cover up and to allow my strengths to so dominate, that people (so I thought) would not catch on to my weaknesses.  Like porridge that is too hot or a bed that is too hard, this sounds like compensating too much!  I was trying to over-compensate for my weaknesses by ignoring them, and trusting my strengths to cover them up. This may be an obvious statement: that didn’t work for very long.

Further along in my leadership development process, it seemed that my supervisors focused almost completely on my weaknesses, and not my strengths.  In my performance reviews, they would acknowledge what I was doing well, but quickly move on to a lengthy discussion of my weaknesses, focusing on the attention I needed to give to those weaknesses to improve and eliminate them.  I now believe this approach sounds like the other extreme, compensating too little.  I found myself under-compensating for my weaknesses by instead focusing all of my energy on improving them, to the detriment of my strengths.  Gordon MacDonald, in Ordering Your Private World, explains it this way: “I normally invested inordinately large amounts of time doing things I was not good at, while the tasks I should have been able to do with excellence and effectiveness were pre-empted.  I know many Christian leaders who feel that they spend up to 60 percent of their time (perhaps a lot more, actually) doing things at which they are second best.” (2003, p. 88)  The result will be, as Andy Stanley shared in The Next Generation Leader, that “the moment a leader steps away from his core competencies, his effectiveness as a leader diminishes.” (2003, p. 21)

So where do you find the balance of “just right”?  I found the best answer for me in Stanley’s book, when I read this: “Upgrade your performance by playing to your strengths and delegating your weaknesses.  This one decision will do more to enhance your productivity than anything else you do as a leader.” (p. 33) Within my own particular make-up, the idea of delegating areas where I was weak to someone who had that area as a strength was a novel and revolutionizing thought for me.  I realized that I did not and should not need to do everything; rather, I could and should rely on the strengths and skills of others.  I needed to focus on my strengths, doing what I could do best.  However, I also needed to self-analyze and identify my weaknesses (and takes steps to improve where it was practical and beneficial, but not at the expense of developing my strengths).  By strategically evaluating both myself and those around me, I could learn to appropriately compensate by putting my energy into those things that I would do well, and enabling and empowering others to do what they would do well.  In the process, others would grow and develop, I would be better at those areas on which I was focusing, and the organization and environment in which this took place would flourish.  It makes sense.

MacDonald, G. (2003). Ordering Your Private World (Revised ed.). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

Stanley, A. (2003). Next Generation Leader. Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Publishers.



  1. Erik Smith says:

    I so agree. We discuss this in the Intro to Life Calling course that I teach (developed for IWU by Dr. Bill Millard). While we should try to improve in our areas of weakness, putting too much focus there means we will never be more than mediocre, since weaknesses are areas where we aren’t naturally gifted! To go from “good to great” as Jim Collins says, a person needs to identify his natural gifts and strengths and develop those as much as possible.

    • jsmcmaster says:

      Excellent observation, Erik! Peter Drucker also talked about this in an article he wrote in the Harvard Business Review (June, 2004), when he said that “effective executives try to focus on jobs they’ll do especially well,” and others, he delegates.

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