The subject of this story (we will call him Mike) was a lawyer and had been a brilliant litigator for most of his law career. As a litigator he had an impressive record of wins. He was feared by other litigators because of his intellectually aggressive style – both in delivering his arguments and in picking holes in the arguments of his adversaries.
For many years Mike had dreamt of becoming his law firm’s managing partner. He had finally won the role of the firm’s managing partner because of his success in bringing in huge amounts of revenue as a litigator. The difficulty was that he attempted to lead the firm using the same intellectual style he used in litigation. For example, Mike led weekly management meetings for the firm’s management committee and monthly meetings for the firm’s fifty partners. He dominated these meetings through the shear power of his intellect.
Mike was highly intelligent and expressed this intelligence with clear, powerful and well reasoned communications. He thought through what he had to say carefully and thoroughly, because he would not just present an argument, but would also often list what he thought the counterarguments might be. He would then include his own arguments against those possible counterarguments.
Also, Mike could think well on his feet. If he was asked questions or someone disagreed with him, he could respond with quick, clear, relevant and logical answers. Through the power of his logic, Mike usually won his arguments – but often at the cost of losing the hearts, the loyalty and the commitment of the people in his firm. Equally, many people were aware that the power of a logically structured argument did not, in and of itself, guarantee that Mike had the best case.
Mark was a senior military officer given the responsibility for overcoming the bureaucratic lethargy, inefficiency and low productivity of a large Defence Department division. Mark exuded power, confidence and authority and he had enormous energy and drive. He had a reputation for taking initiative and for getting difficult tasks done quickly and creatively!
The difficulty was that, along with these strengths, he also had a restlessness and impatience that often made him harsh and blunt in his communications. He could even be scathing if he thought someone was not competent or not achieving what he wanted when he wanted it. As he put it: “I do not suffer fools easily”. Also – though he never directly said this – his basic attitude was: “my way or the highway”! These were his “Achilles Heels” that accompanied his strengths.
The result of all of this was that a culture of fear developed around him and worked its way down through the organisation. This was causing his people to become risk adverse, undertake “backside protecting” behaviour, and creating a culture of non-accountability – all actually reinforcing the bureaucratic lethargy which Mark was charged with overcoming. After a year of making very little progress with this charge, I was called in as a consultant to Mark and his leadership team.
I began this process by running a five day leadership workshop with Mark and his senior team. On the workshop we used a psychological profiling instrument, which identified each person’s natural strengths along with their potential Achilles Heels. On the fourth day of the workshop, I asked each member to read out the natural strengths of their profile – and their possible Achilles Heels – to the whole group, and for the group to give feedback on the accuracy of this.