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How to Talk About Failure: Strengths and Our Weak Moments

How to Talk About Failure: Strengths and Our Weak Moments

by Maika Leibbrandt
How to Talk About Failure: Strengths and Our Weak Moments

Strengths coaches spend more time studying success than failure. We know there is infinitely greater potential for growth by investing in talent than there is in fixing weakness. Yet, even our top themes come with inherent vulnerabilities. In my experience, endless potential does not exist without understanding our limitations.

I lead with Strategic, Ideation and Adaptability. In a crisis, my instinct is to gather information, develop a flexible plan and adjust accordingly. I am excellent at responding to the needs of the moment. When others follow my lead, I provide stability by accepting change and quickly develop creative solutions to help my team bounce back. I do not require advance preparation or a flowchart of potential answers. My style is fluid. Dynamic. Functional.

All of this is excellent until success means I have to be consistent.

For the past six weeks, I have been failing at a very frustrating project: teaching our baby how to sleep. I read every book I could, talked to anyone who would listen and brainstormed endlessly. I produced enough plans and alternative plans to last a lifetime. But it wasn't what our family needed. We needed consistency. We needed stiff leadership, grounded in rules and structure. My family was crying out for predictable rigidity while I was running myself ragged trying to be limber and flexible.

I hit my lowest point when the lack of sleep left my physically sick. Emotionally exhausted, I hired a virtual trainer who promised to offer guidance through a step-by-step program that would last 14 days. For two weeks, I committed to following whatever program she suggested. What she had to say wasn't revolutionary. In fact, I'm pretty sure it was no different from the information I had gathered on my own. What was different was how following her program allowed my strengths to work.

Instead of being the regulator, I was the responder. I could still ask questions and brainstorm, but I didn't have to do this with the added responsibility of owning which decision was correct. I got to check in daily, which fed my talent for urgency. Before, I was trying to play every role. Now, I could comfortably settle into only my role. No wonder I felt a weight was lifted off of me. In failure, I found new dimensions of my strengths. I learned I am better at leading a response than making the initial call. At best, my ability to create structure is limited. When consistency is required, I have to find ways to understand it as someone else's need, or I will likely fail to adhere to it.

Recently I was coaching an executive who felt disoriented in his current role. He led with Analytical, Competition, Significance and Achiever. He was drawn to important work and could quickly remove all emotion from a scenario in order to win. He excelled in a previous role as an independent achiever. Now, he was in a leadership role in an environment he perceived as requiring him to be in touch with the feelings of others. His frustration was compounded every time he was told to slow down and improve culture. He was convinced that his impatience and failure in this area came from his lack of relationship-building themes and that he had no other choice than to quit.

We examined his top themes for potential as well as limitations. He was at his best when he was able to have some autonomy and charge forward. He did not naturally pick up on the emotions of others, and if that was the only way he could succeed, he was going to need other strategies or partners to get there. But, if succeeding meant inspiring people, his dispassionate approach to tackling big problems could be the key.

First, I asked him what his themes were hungering for that they weren't getting in his current environment. Then, I encouraged him to develop a brand of how he works best and to speak about it often. He reflected on the value he brought and how to best communicate that specific value. What resulted was an accurate and motivating description of what people could expect when working on his team -- and also what they shouldn't count on him for. As a result, he provided a sense of stability, honesty and trust. And, often, that is exactly what people need in terms of emotional support.

When we study strengths, we help people identify who they are. This is perhaps the most important discovery we can help our clients make. Deeper into the strengths development journey, we need to complete the picture by helping them also own who they are not. I learned this by reflecting on my own challenges and failures. Whether you are a coach, a manager or a partner, you can help others make similar discoveries. The answer to our limitations cannot be found in a CliftonStrengths handbook. It likely does not fit in a group strengths session. And it certainly isn't meant for someone's first experience with strengths. Once trust has been established, I find it's easiest for clients to comprehend this during open and honest reflection to a real-time challenge.

What's the story?

Describe a time you have experienced failure. What was the role you played, and what exactly went wrong? Identify the specifics of the mistake or misstep.

What were the implications?

What effect did this have on you, as well as on others? Explore how your strengths were operating within this challenge. What kinds of structure or stimuli were your themes hungering for? How were they reacting when they were or were not getting the right fuel they craved?

Study Success: What will you do differently?

Describe what you now know about your themes. Remind yourself what they are designed to help you do incredibly well. When have these themes led you to great outcomes? Name the times you get frustrated or feel out of sync. How important is it that you succeed in this way? This is not the time to find alternative ways to get the job done. Be courageous enough to name situations or roles you'd prefer to let go. When you fall back into a spot where your themes are frustrated, how can you change your perspective to one that feeds you rather than drains you?

Even though we seem to live in a society bent on fixing weakness, few people know how to address problems when things truly go wrong. Taking a strengths-based approach means we are bold enough to lean into discomfort in a search for better understanding. It means even in the midst of defeat, we study pathways to victory. It allows us to stop trying to play every role and start investing more in our own personal bests.

Learn more about using CliftonStrengths to help yourself and others succeed:

Maika Leibbrandt's Top 5 CliftonStrengths are Strategic, Positivity, Woo, Ideation and Adaptability.

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