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Tony Schwartz

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Redefining Greatness (It's Complicated)

Posted: 12/01/10 09:31 AM ET

Consider the following qualities:

Confident.....................Humble
Courageous.................Prudent
Tenacious....................Gentle
Honest.........................Compassionate
Decisive.......................Flexible
Disciplined...................Playful
Strong..........................Vulnerable
Deliberate....................Spontaneous
Discerning...................Intuitive
Outgoing.....................Introspective

Which quality do you value more in each pair?

Is there any doubt that most of us tend to choose up sides between qualities, valuing one in preference to its opposite? Or that most organizations often value the whole constellation of qualities on the left over those on the right?

Many companies now build leadership programs around developing "competencies," a list of core qualities they expect all their leaders to embody. It's one size fits all, and the aim is to help people get up to speed wherever they fall short.

In direct reaction, the Gallup Organization began focusing a decade ago solely on developing people's strengths. The premise is that we're better served by cultivating our intrinsic strengths rather than by laboring, often futilely, to fix our weaknesses.

The problem is that both models vastly oversimplify the challenge of greatness -- for leaders or anyone else -- in a world of relentlessly increasing complexity.

Trying to build one's unique strengths turns out to be just as limited as single-mindedly seeking to overcome liabilities.

On the one hand, it's undeniably more efficient and more immediately satisfying to build on our existing strengths than to struggle with our deficits. On the other hand, even strengths have their limitations.

"There is always an optimal value," explained the philosopher Gregory Bateson, "beyond which anything is toxic, no matter what: oxygen, sleep, psychotherapy, philosophy." The same is true of a personality traits.

The Stoic philosophers referred to this paradox as "antakolouthia," or the mutual entailment of the virtues. By this view, no virtue is a virtue by itself. They all include an opposite quality, and overusing a specific strength turns it into a liability.

Confidence untempered by humility, for example, turns into arrogance. Courage without prudence becomes recklessness. Tenacity unmediated by flexibility congeals into rigidity. Honesty in the absence of compassion is cruelty.

We're well served to rely on our strengths wherever possible, but not at the expense of valuing and developing their equally critical opposites.

Our brains are a good example. Most of our education focuses on developing the rational, deductive, analytic capacities of the left hemisphere. Far less attention is paid to cultivating the visual, imaginative, big-picture capacities of the right hemisphere. Each is necessary to the highest levels of thinking, and neither is sufficient by itself. Only by training both do we gain access to the full powers of the whole brain.

We need not be limited by our weaknesses, nor limited to our strengths. As Anders Ericsson and other researchers have shown, we're capable of achieving excellence at anything to which we devote sufficient deliberate practice.

"I don't do nuance," George Bush once famously said. It was his loss and ours. Greatness embraces paradox rather than choosing up sides, synthesizes rather than excludes.

Several years ago, I worked with the head of a large company who was very skilled at his job. Because no one doubted that, including him, he was also utterly at ease with acknowledging his shortcomings.

He was also eager for any kind of feedback, because above all, he wanted to grow and improve. What you got was a whole person, confident and humble, skilled and flawed. Not surprisingly, he was beloved.

I have a wise mentor who can be fiercely tough with me in one moment, and incredibly gentle in the next. Neither would be sufficient by itself. It's his ability to move between these opposite qualities, depending on the circumstances, that serves me so well.

Do I contradict myself?" Walt Whitman asked in Song of Myself. "Very well then. I am vast, I contain multitudes."

We all have an inclination to choose up sides -- to find a comfort zone and stay there, especially in times of uncertainty. We go with what we know, and disregard the rest. Certainty makes us feel safer, but it also makes us smaller, and more defensive.

The less compelled we feel to defend who we are, the more energy we have to invest in becoming the best version of ourselves.

Greatness demands both decisiveness and flexibility, courage and prudence, strength and vulnerability, action and introspection.

The true measure of greatness is our capacity to navigate between our opposites with agility and grace -- to accept ourselves exactly as we are, but never to stop trying to get better.

 

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