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It’s Shocking! You Can Overuse Your Best Skills!

Several years ago Carol Kallendorf (Delta Associates Founder) and I had it dramatically impressed of upon us how a unique ability we possess can be overused, negatively impacting a life and a career.

We found this point powerfully illustrated when we were visiting the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans, Louisiana, in the southeastern U.S.

There we saw our first electric eel, six feet long, 40 pounds, menacingly staring at us from the other side of a thick, glass aquarium wall.  Long before Benjamin Franklin discovered electricity at the end of his kite in a thunderstorm, this marvel of nature could generate up to 860 volts (the plug in your wall transmits 120 v or 240 v, depending on your country).  Taking care of this guy could be very hazardous to the health of anyone maintaining the aquarium.

What most impressed us is the way the electric eel uses its ability to generate electricity for self defense or for hunting its prey.  As their “go to tool” for looking for lunch, the electric eel generates low voltage to make small invertebrates move out of where they are into their line of sight to become the eel’s meal.  Stepping up the voltage a bit allows the eel to paralyze it’s prey for better ease of eating.

Under extreme danger for self-defense, the electric eel can unleash the total potential of its electrical capacity, turning its foe into an Amazon river fatality.  But there is a price to pay for the electric eel–too often used to its total capacity, it will eventually go blind.

From that illustration, Carol and I both agreed that for human or fish, OVERUSING your most powerful gift can make you blind to what’s really happening around you and can be a real career killer. 

Here are some ways that I see people overuse their best gifts:

  1. The Gift of the Ability to Get Things Done–the Upsides and Downsides.  It’s a wonderful gift to get things done!  I can’t tell you how much I value a person who can accomplish goals.  There truly aren’t many people around who can do it.  There is no more important ability than the ability to accomplish the goals of the organization we’re working for, or our own goals.  The ability today does not depend on how much you know, but what you can accomplish.  Maintaining a career depends on our ability to be valuable to your organization–to get things done.

    At the same time, this ability to get things done, if overused, can be a career killer.  For the beginning years of my career I thought that outcomes were more important than people.  Because of this I overused the ability to get things done and all too often I only valued my own ability, not the team I worked with. 

    I thought the people I worked with were there to support what I did–to frankly make me look good.  I later found that I could accomplish much more by respecting, valuing, and collaborating with the people around me.  I still have getting things done as my highest priority, but working with my team and the people around me to make us an effective unit is critically important.
  2. The Ability to Take Charge–Where it Will Take You and Where it Won’t.  Those who have the ability to take charge have the ability to take responsibility and to move the organization forward.  While everyone is wondering what to do, these people find a way to get themselves into key positions.  These “take charge people” have self confidence and a good self-concept, very important to any successful leadership position.  People around them often defer to them and assume that they will lead.

    But overuse of the “take charge” approach to life and work can create an environment where nobody tells you the key things that you need to know to survive and thrive.  You may feel confident in using a few more “sharp elbows” than you should, leaving people wary and mistrustful.  You may create a group of colleagues that will be only too happy to see you fail.  You may end up on the wrong side of the wrong people.   A long term strategy of being more comfortable with being feared instead of loved is often not a good long-term strategy. 

    It’s very important for a leader to also learn to follow, but take charge people often don’t learn that skill–they’re focused on learning how to unseat those they want to replace, and really don’t know how to follow an organizational long term plan.   All too often they begin to lose the support of those closest to them.  It’s important to learn followership as well as leadership.
  3. The Gift of Getting Along with Everyone–How it Works Until the Ground Starts Shaking.  Getting along with everyone around us is highly valued in organizations today and is one of the most important skills.  Abrasive leaders often find themselves marginalized by those who are supposed to be following them.  A person who is interpersonally skilled and avoids conflicts often get promoted more quickly and survives organizational upheavals. 

    Yet the successful organizational relator–the person who gets along with everyone–is successful in eras when there is a clear strategy that’s working and everyone just needs to move fast to stay on course.   Yet, overused, the person who gets along with everyone finds a difficult course when the ground starts moving beneath the organization, and change is basic for survival.  It is at that point a tough minded leader must lead groups through change that is often not popular.

    We have to get past overusing our best skills.  Our skills and abilities which we often overuse end up limiting our effectiveness.   Functioning as a “one trick pony” in the workplace will seldom work over a lifetime. 

    I have known people who are very intelligent and technically skilled, but without interpersonal and organizational skills they won’t survive  On the other hand, you may be interpersonally skilled, but seen as shallow and inept if you can’t lead in the midst of conflictive change.  You have to lead with a variety of skills and often in subtle combinations.  Use your best skills and abilities, but grow to be able to use a wide range of workplace skills.  Remember the electric eel….use your skills, but don’t let them blind you to reality.

Austin, Texas

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Carol Kallendorf, PhD. | (512) 417-9756 

Jack Speer | (512) 417-9428


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