Leading in a Dysfunctional System 3: Move Toward Your Strengths

Instead of allowing yourself to be pulled by the uncoordinated demands of a dysfunctional system, you need to push, gradually and incrementally, toward your strengths.

Part 3 in series: Leading in a Dysfunctional System.

by Todd W. Hall, PhD

This is the third entry in this series on leading in a dysfunctional system. Secure leaders make a conscious effort to move toward their strengths in spite of a dysfunctional system. Why? Because this is where you will create the most value for your organization, and secure leaders do what is best for the organization. A dysfunctional system (chaotic or rigid) doesn’t become healthier by itself. Secure leaders step up to the plate and create value even when other leaders or the organization don’t recognize that value. This moves the system in the direction of health.

First, what is a strength? A strength is not just an activity at which you excel. That’s certainly part of it, but it’s not the whole picture. When an activity is a strength for you, you will:

• Feel competent at it

• Feel compelled to start doing it

• Become immersed while doing it

• Feel fulfilled after doing it

Strengths, then, are activities you are naturally good at; but more than that, you feel compelled to engage in these activities. Instead of having to force yourself to start doing them, it’s just the opposite. You’ll find yourself engaging in these activities even when something else is a higher priority—call it “productive procrastination.” So you feel drawn to these activities before you start doing them. And once you start, you lose track of time because you become immersed in the activity. This experience is what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.” When you experience flow in doing an activity, you easily focus because the activity is intrinsically enjoyable. When you’re done, you may feel physically tired, but you don’t feel emotionally drained; instead you feel a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction. (See, How to Know You Belong in Hollywood: Creative Personalities Really are More Complex, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.)

For example, I enjoy teaching and speaking. When I am preparing to present a seminar on a topic I feel competent and interested in, I don’t have to force myself. I naturally gravitate toward spending time preparing. When I’m actually doing the presentation, I become immersed in a “flow” experience. It’s as if everything else fades away in the background and all my attention is focused on the presentation. After doing a presentation, or teaching a class, I am physically tired, but I feel emotionally invigorated.

So, how do you swim upstream in an unhealthy organization? As Marcus Buckingham puts it in Go Put Your Strengths to Work, you need to develop the “push” discipline. Instead of allowing yourself to be pulled by the uncoordinated demands of a dysfunctional system, you need to push, gradually and incrementally, toward your strengths.

Stay tuned for practical strategy #4: Push Toward Your Strengths.

Reflection: When do you experience flow?