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April - 2007 - issue > Incompetence
The flip side of signature strength
Prasad Kaipa
Sunday, April 15, 2007
Do you know what your signature strength is – something that is unique to you and that you rely upon to get you out of trouble and make you succeed even when the odds are high?

It is an important question for an Indian leader to explore deeply, since the flip side of that signature strength is core incompetence (CI). Yes, you read it right – your core incompetence. Your success or failure to become great leaders depends upon your awareness of your core incompetence. Let me give you an example from sports.

You’ve probably heard that ten minutes before the end of the extra time in the 2006 soccer World Cup, French captain Zidane almost broke the Italian player Materazzi’s heart, quite literally, with a head butt on his chest. The act got Zidane kicked out of the world cup finals and it is probable that France lost to Italy because they were without their captain and one of the greatest players of the game.

What you probably did not know is that it was not the first time Zidane had misdirected his energy. He had stamped on Saudi Arabia’s captain Fuad Amin in the 1998 World Cup and was dismissed from that particular game. In 2000, he had head butted Jochen Kientz in the 27th minute. Kientz suffered a concussion and a fractured cheekbone and Zidane had received a five-match ban.

As an executive coach interested in exploring what drives people to success and failure, I have worked with and interviewed hundreds of ambitious people including business executives, sports legends and Nobel laureates. One key discovery I made repeatedly over the last fifteen years is that there is a common driver to the successes and failures of the people (I studied). I call this driver, ‘the signature strength’ and its downside, ‘core incompetence’.

Signature strength forms when a certain competence in a person matures due to his nature and/or nurture. I found that the initial successes produced by the signature strength make people mistake a particular manifestation of the strength for the strength itself. They then convert that manifestation as a success formula and apply it to all of their goals. When this behavior continues indiscriminately, it spills into all roles and situations resulting in core incompetence.

In Zidane’s case, perhaps ‘intensity’ is his signature strength and one manifestation of it is an aggressive behavior – when applied the game, it helps him to score brilliant goals; when blindly applied on an opponent’s chest, it becomes his CI.

CI therefore is “a blind attachment to and reliance on a particular manifestation of one’s signature strength, one which has brought successes in the past but now applied blindly everywhere else.”

Zidane is not alone in displaying CI. For Craig Barrett – the chairman of Intel Corporation – persistence is his signature strength, which turned into blind stubbornness when he stuck to the Itanium chip against his own engineers. It cost Intel billions of dollars and earned the name Itanic.

Everybody has CI. If you think you don’t – slow down – and reflect on what your parents or elementary school teachers repeatedly warned you to be watchful about. See whether you still have the same issue, the same ‘hubris’ or ‘Achilles heel’ even now. When your confidence becomes over confidence or sometimes arrogance, you do things that you have done in the past and gotten away with, assuming that the context has not changed. Everybody gets caught sooner or later. It is just a matter of time: CI is a ticking behavioral bomb waiting to explode in your face.

The presence of CI does not signify the end of your life though. Once you become aware of it and pay attention to it, you can manage your life around it and become successful. One example I can think of is Lance Armstrong.

Growing up in a modest family, determination became his great weapon to raise himself to heights he could not afford. From local bike races leading up to stage 18 of Tour de France in 1995, what propelled him were sheer will power and unimaginable hard work (manifestation of determination).

Then he got afflicted by cancer in 1996. Besides teaching him many valuable lessons about the preciousness of life and the nature of human suffering, he says it also provided him the perspective to discover other manifestations of his strength, ones that he had never used before in biking: meticulously improving his strategy and technique.

Before cancer, he would never allow a competitor to win one of the stages in the race,often at the cost of draining himself, even if it wouldn’t affect his lead. After cancer, he allowed it. He even gave up on wanting to participate and win every bike race and concentrated single-mindedly on the Tour De France (another manifestation of determination). By becoming aware of his CI and reinventing his strength in other forms Lance Armstrong was able to win Tour de France for seven consecutive years from 1999 to 2005.

In spite of becoming aware of our CI, we cannot pay attention to it if we do not have a compelling vision or a larger purpose. Without a compelling aspiration, it becomes painful to look at our own CI. Only in the context of a larger commitment can our breakdowns be used to create breakthroughs.

It is important to note that CI comes out of our signature strength and not from already identified incompetencies. Our biggest failures come from our biggest strengths and our biggest lessons and learning potentially come from our biggest failures. So, let me ask you again: Do you know what is your signature strength? Are you aware of your CI and how it has limited your growth?

Prasad Kaipa is a coach and advisor to CEOs and senior executives and lives in the Silicon Valley. He can be reached at Prasad@kaipagroup.com

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