Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Do you know your own limitations?

Feeling invincible is a common trait for most teenagers, but hopefully by the time they've started their first job, the feeling has begun to wane.

Realizing one's lack of invincibility is a growing up process.

And yet, we know that many people never grow up! I have met several people in my career who believed they were invincible and indispensable. In fact, the first person I knew who believed this was me. And I was a bit older than 18!

When we feel invincible and indispensable, we have no understanding of our limitations. We believe there is no task insurmountable, no issue non- negotiable, no mountain un-climbable. While we can all view this type of resilience as remarkable (and sometimes essential), there is a down side to being completely disconnected from the reality of limitation.

The down side is that when we believe we are invincible and can do anything by and for ourselves, we cannot lead others because we simply believe we don't need others. We may even have a sense of arrogance that no one can do it as well as we can.

However, the reality is that we do need others to accomplish our aspirations at work and at home. Leaders recognize their need for others because they respect what others can do and are well connected to their own sense of limitation.

I was reminded of my stubborn disconnection from my own limitations just the other day.

I was arranging our holiday cards on the mantel when I accidentally knocked over a large painting that was on the mantel leaning up against the wall. As it crashed down towards me, I saw that it had also knocked down a large, metal candle stick sitting next to it. In a split second as I witnessed the candle stick falling through the air, I thought about this metal object crashing down on the granite floor and I imagined it damaging the stone.

So, with my invincibility intact, I stuck my foot out in order to break its fall (my hands were busy catching the painting). Well, didn't you know that my foot is tougher than granite?!? I might as well have taken a hammer to my foot! Fortunately, I didn't break my foot.

As I sat there icing it, I cried. I cried because of the pain but also because the incident reminded me of how fragile I really am and how fragile life really is. It reminded me how important it is to know your own limitations; after all, even a candle stick could stop me in my tracks! When we don't know our own limitations, we take on too much...we over promise and over schedule. We juggle the world while others sit back and just watch.

Picturing myself juggling holiday cards, paintings and candle sticks with both my hands and feet made me chuckle, yet made me realize that I was at a critical point of needing to ask for help from others.

Recognizing your limitations, isn't about signaling weakness or about admitting defeat, it is the opposite, it is about empowering yourself to be more successful. Recognizing your limitations means losing your arrogance about others' abilities and engaging them to be part of the solution.

I also faced this lesson many times in my career.

One time we were given a mandate from our senior leadership team to launch a product. However, this directive was at odds with our strategic direction and my team (including me) was completely against it. I promised my team that I would get us off of the hook. It was a well-intentioned promise, but it also was based in invincibility. I didn't know what I didn't know and yet, I put myself on the line to deliver. In my mind, I could do it; I could get senior management to reverse their directive, of course I could do it!

But I was wrong. I couldn't do it. I couldn't get us off the hook to launch the product. After all, our senior leadership had another plan in mind. As a result, my team lost faith and trust in me. The most frustrating part of this situation was that I had made that promise to my team with all of my best intentions.

You see, the other down side to not knowing your limitations is that even with your best intentions; you can disappoint others and destroy trust.

Great leaders don't think they can do it all because they understand how they are limited in what they know and in what they can impact. They understand the importance of building bridges in order to have others' fill those gaps.


The craziness of the holidays is a good time for us to realize that maybe we just can't do it all and to engage the help of others. So, this holiday season, get in touch with your limitations by:

1. Realizing you need others to get the job done
2. Being realistic on what you can and can't do
3.Keeping your number of commitments to a minimum
4.Asking for help and assistance
5.Respecting the contributions of others


Happy Holidays!

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