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Know Your Limitations; You'll Lead Better

The best leaders recognize their weaknesses--and struggle through them.

I am known as a pretty quick study on most issues I face in my professional career. But that ability to master the situation has hit a roadblock. It's called physical therapy.

In my work I operate pretty much in the cognitive realm; I size up issues and help my clients work through them. As an executive coach I of course touch on the emotional domain because it is important to know how clients are feeling especially in their relations to others.

Physical therapy is another matter. While I have been through physical therapy a few times, I recently had a foot operation, and my current sessions have been not so much painful as disconcerting. I have been assigned some tasks that involve coordination in which I am woefully lacking. I know the motion that my kind therapist Jessica wants me to do, but I cannot reproduce the effort to satisfaction.

It reminds me of a drawing course I took in college. One day after class the professor pulled me aside and asked me point blank if I understood what was going in the class. I did not take his comment personally; in fact, I explained that sure I knew what I was supposed to do, but my hand could not reproduce the lines he asked us to draw.  In my mind I could draw perfectly; in my hand I was pretty much a stick figure guy.

Knowing your limits is essential to self-growth. Leadership author and researcher Jim Collins wrote about this in an essay he contributed to Upward Bound: Nine Original Accounts of How Business Leaders Reached Their Summits. When he was in his early 40s he decided that he wanted to become a better climber. So he hired a personal climbing coach, a young woman in her early 20s. She put Jim through a rigorous unlearning process that forced him to undo all of the habits he had put into his climbing technique since his teen years. It was an awkward and humbling process but Collins persisted and gained the proficiency he needed to become better. He has since scaled the face of Yosemite's El Capitan in a single day to celebrate turning 50.

Recognition of limitations is the first step. As Collins illustrates, it is what you do next that matters. This is an important lesson in personal development. An executive coach may be able to point out things to do differently but unless you try them out, and commit to the change process, no amount of coaching in the world will work.

This is what I have learned with some of my failings at coordination. I am not a total klutz. I used to play tennis regularly and I still play plenty of golf, but when it comes to certain aspects of coordination I am deficient. That said, I am not giving up.

I know this perseverance is essential to the growth process. Very bright people in management sometimes run into obstacles with a major challenge; it is not something they can knock off as easily as they once might have aced a statistics exam or physics final. Very often they are facing human issues, ones not solvable on paper.

And at first they may struggle at their lack of coordination that is ability to connect with peers or direct reports. Good ones, those who end up leading their organizations, pretty soon learn to acknowledge their limitations. And when they do, they open up themselves to others. People want to work with a manager who knows what he can and cannot do.

Mastery of a task may be a straightforward path. Mastery in leadership is a lifetime pursuit, one that is both humbling and challenging as well as rewarding to the individual, and the team, when it works.

Now back to physical therapy. Argh.

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IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Feb 7, 2012

JOHN BALDONI | Columnist | President, Baldoni Consulting

John Baldoni is the president of Baldoni Consulting, an executive coaching firm. John speaks widely on leadership and has written 10 leadership books; his newest is Lead With Purpose: Giving Your Organization a Reason to Believe in Itself.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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