In our work with leaders on overplayed strengths, people sometimes object to the idea that every strength can be taken too far. For instance, an academic journal editor once held up publication of a research article stating flatly that "it is impossible for a leader to be too supportive, caring, and loyal."
Did that journal editor have a point? Recent interest in one of the greatest American presidents offers a fascinating example. Let there be no doubt that Abraham Lincoln was an extraordinary leader who galvanized a bitterly divided country and navigated it through phenomenal discord. In fact, Lincoln is one of our personal favorite leaders. But his acclaimed biographer, Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of A Team of Rivals (which Steven Spielberg drew from in his recent film), turned up some counterintuitive insights in her penetrating research. Taking into account aspects of Lincoln often neglected in the cultural lore, she considers the possibility that his leadership could have been even more effective had he not been quite so caring.
In a 2009 HBR interview Goodwin was fast to point out Lincoln's tremendous gift of people skills. She described his exceptional emotional intelligence, willingness to hear out opposing views, keen eye for talent, capacity for forgiveness, and ability to share credit for success but take blame for mistakes. This constellation of admirable attributes earned him loyalty. It was key to recruiting and managing the big talents, and big egos, that made up his cabinet who — despite many being from opposing political parties and former rivals in seeking the presidency — "ended up believing that he was as near a perfect man as anyone they'd ever met," according to Goodwin.
However, Goodwin also concluded that "Lincoln's greatest flaw came out of his strength, which was generally liking people and not wanting to hurt them." This seemed to color his judgment, and delay corrective action by giving people too many chances to turn things around. Nowhere is this more evident than in the disastrous example of how Lincoln managed George McClellan, his general in the early stages of the Civil War.
McClellan had his own issues with overused strengths. His confidence and pride could verge into arrogance. Born to the upper class, McClellan was condescending and insubordinate toward his folksy commander-in-chief. He referred to Lincoln as "a well-meaning baboon" and declared him an "idiot." McClellan's tactical judgment soon proved to be questionable too. Though a systematic and thorough planner who exercised careful judgment, McClellan was also a perfectionist who suffered from analysis-paralysis and struggled to take decisive action. His excessively cautious approach is considered by military historians to be why the Union failed to quash the smaller Confederate forces early on in the Peninsula Campaign of 1862, the failure to seize the Confederate capital of Richmond, and the bloody draw against much smaller forces at Antietam.
Some believe that McClellan should have been removed well before Antietam. In part, Lincoln may have been reluctant to make such a bold staffing move because he was new to warfare and military strategy. Goodwin, however, concluded, "In the end it was his inability to hurt people that made Lincoln keep McClellan on far too long." By dragging his feet on this decision, the Confederacy managed to hold on despite long odds and the Union lost strategic ground and thousands of soldiers, including over 12,000 casualties at Antietam. Six weeks later, Lincoln finally removed McClellan from command.
Lincoln was not alone in struggling with tough people calls. In a recent HBR blog post, we documented how today over half of executives are too soft on accountability. This shortfall is particularly common among those with strong people skills, who are bedeviled by two hazards when it comes to tackling performance issues.
The first hazard is that caring leaders tend not to be direct, especially when there's a conflict. They might avoid talking with the other person altogether; or soft-pedal the message to the point where the person walks out of the room blissfully unaware of the seriousness of the problem. The hazard is augmented when leaders rationalize, usually by telling themselves, "I don't want to make anyone upset." They'd like to believe they are being protective of the other person, when in fact they're protecting themselves.
Leaders with strong people skills should also be aware of a second hazard: that they, like Lincoln with McClellan, will be much too slow to act. Well-liked leaders, if they are honest with themselves, shy away from tough action because they fear it will hurt their reputation. Another way that such leaders hang themselves up is by pointing to the subpar performer's good points. But if you wait until that person has no redeeming value, you'll wait forever. Finally, once these leaders do achieve clarity that the person needs to go, they let concerns about implementation delay action unnecessarily. "It will be hard to find a replacement" or "It's a bad idea to make a change now because there's been so much instability lately." In attempting to rein in tendencies that impede your ability to deal with tough personnel issues, self-delusion is your biggest threat.
How do you prevent your valuable people skills from turning into a liability? For one, wake up to the fact that that very aptitude puts you at risk of misapplying it. Realize too that the more heavily you rely on those skills and the more deeply you believe in them, the graver the risk. Second, wake up to the value of the antithesis of a strong people orientation — tough-mindedness about people. Finally, be able to imagine that the height of people skill is to combine these seeming polar opposites — to take needed tough actions in a constructive, respectful way.