I was chatting with a professor at the United States Military Academy some years ago when he turned to me during a discussion of great military leadership and said, “It’s really pretty simple. Lead with your strengths. Call in reinforcements where you’re weak.” Now, he was smart enough not to think all battles are won by this simple strategy, but his words have stayed with me ever since. This is because they describe one of the essential strategies of effective leadership.
All leaders have strengths and all leaders have weaknesses. Mediocre leaders tend to play to their strengths and conceal their weaknesses. Great leaders lean to their strengths but aren’t satisfied with that alone. They also know how to compensate for their weaknesses. They know how to make an honest appraisal of themselves and then bolster their weaknesses through hard work and the help of others.
A good illustration of this strategy comes from the life of Muhammad Ali, whose passing we are just now mourning. Aside from his skills in the ring, Ali was best known for his words. He was a talker, a wordsmith. He spouted poems, declared principles of greatness and talked “prettier” than any of his opponents and most of his interviewers.
It turns out, though, that Muhammad was not very literate. He had not done well in his early schooling. This was in part because he was dyslexic and in part because his boxing took him away from his studies for weeks at a time. Remember that he won a gold medal in the Olympics just weeks after graduating from high school. Studying wasn’t his priority and wasn’t easy for him during the short periods of his life when it was a priority.
Ali was a smart man, though, and decided to lean to one of his strengths to make up for his weakness. He became a master memorizer. He eagerly memorized long passages of poetry and verse and this fed his famous love of rhyme and meter. He asked friends to explain any unfamiliar words they used and he begged his family to read to him. He could read for himself, of course, but his memory was tied more to hearing than seeing. So, he leaned to listening over reading and retained all that he could. Just yesterday, I heard him lauded as a great American “athlete, activist, and orator.” Astounding, given that he only got out of high school due to the good graces of an adoring principal.
So our goal must be to know our strengths, wield them skillfully, and devise strategies for overcoming—or, in Muhammad Ali’s case, working around—our weaknesses. This means, first, being brutally honest with ourselves, about what we are and what we are not. It means, second, being brutally humble. We cannot let pride keep us from the help we need. Finally, it means working as hard as necessary to “fix what’s broke.”
You have astonishing strengths. You also have debilitating weaknesses. I don’t have to urge you to use your strengths. You do that naturally. I do have to remind you to call in reinforcements where you’re weak. This is how great battles are won.
That’s it. Have a great weekend.