Strengths are like well kept trails

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If you ever visit my hometown you’ll notice several peaks that jut up from the coastal valley – ancient volcanoes dotting the landscape. One in particular offers incredible views of San Luis Obispo, the coastal range, and a glimpse of the ocean. One morning some friends and I parked at the trailhead and headed up a dusty trail just before dawn. About a mile in we began to wander across the open meadow heading toward what we thought was a secondary trail – we were hopeful this “shortcut” would quicken our pace. Unable to reconnect with any trail we spent the next several hours scrapping our shins on Manzanita as we trudged through thick chaparral and searched hopelessly for the trail in dim morning light. Shrouded by the peak, we missed the sunrise that day and our ninety-minute hike turned into a full day adventure.

I think that hike provides an apt – albeit limited – analogy of how our strengths and weaknesses impact our ability to lead and succeed. So follow me on a brief journey. Imagine your mind (and mine) is a peak you’ve hiked thousands of time.

Each hike we’ve taken was a series of steps – thoughts and actions – representing the ways we prefer to solve problems, build friendships, inspire others, or accomplish mundane tasks. According to Gallup, the way we do life, approach challenges, and see the world is based largely on our unique sequence of strengths. These strengths are both hardwired and honed to efficiency. By analogy, each hiking route we’ve chosen represents a collection of our typical approaches to work and the lens we see the world through.

As children, we also blazed new trails to the summit. I see, this in my own children – like the way our 4yr old daughter organizes her every toy and tracks doll accessories, or the way our 2yr old can read our dinner conversation well enough to unload a timely knock-knock joke and shift the mood. With encouragement and perceived success, my kids choose those pathways more frequently. By repetition their approaches and filters become increasingly efficient. Similarly, we have worn down clear paths in the rugged terrain. These paths are our favorite ways to approach people and ideas. They are easy to traverse, efficient, and they energize us.

Occasionally, however, these routes appear hidden or less desirable. Like my sunrise hike, there are times we stray from the path only to struggle through thickets, or boulder around small crags. Each of these alternatives, while offering a new perspective, takes a little more out of us. Sometimes we stray for efficiency, other times we think we are just working on our weaknesses, and occasionally – though less often than we think – the alternative route is the only option. Regardless of the reason, it’s important to remember that for this analogy straying from the path will lead to exhaustion.

Like the trail, our strengths provide efficient and energizing approaches to problem solving, relationship building, leadership provision, and achievement. Like our weaknesses, the thickets and crags prove inefficient and exhausting. It’s not that we can’t work out of our weaknesses – at times we must do our best out of weakness – but our strengths will energize and motivate us. Staying on the trails gets us where we want to go quickly.

Are we struggling through thickets and crags unnecessarily? Is your team spending too much time bouldering? Perhaps we could regain energy and productivity. Here are three simple ways I've seen teams and individuals stick to the trail: reflecting, rethinking, and remembering.

  • Reflect on your day and ask yourself what part of the mountain you spend time on – trail, meadow, thicket, or crag.

  • Rethink your routes to maximize your trail time. Are their off-trail tasks that can actually be accomplished within your strengths? Maybe there’s a hidden trail that can get you by those thickets.

  • Remember that trail time will energize you so try to end your days and weeks with some trail hiking. (Or, if you’re like me, forget the analogy and literally go hiking at the end of a long day.)

If your job is all trails, consider yourself lucky – trails deliver. However, most of us face at least some tasks that feel like thickets and crags. When you do, remember they too can be crossed. Just keep in mind that too many of them, too often, might cause you to miss the sunrise.


© 2013 by A.R.MARSHALL, PhD