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The difference between a weakness and a fatal flaw

4 min read


As we talk to groups of leaders, it is interesting to ask the question, “How many of you think that just possibly you might have at least one weakness?” Of course, every hand goes up. Most people are well aware that they have some weaknesses.

It is also a fascinating experience to ask people to think of the best leader they have ever worked with or closely observed. If you ask about this person’s strengths, the answers come quickly. You can then ask, “Did this person have any weaknesses?” Once again the answer invariably is, “Yes — he [or she] was not perfect.”

For some, it is an “aha” experience to understand that you do not need to be perfect to be an exceptional leader. No individuals have argued that they worked for, or had ever observed, a leader who was devoid of weaknesses. But while it’s OK for leaders to have weaknesses, it needs to be understood that there is an enormous difference between a common weakness and a fatal flaw.

Statistically we think of a fatal flaw as a weakness at or below the 10th percentile (bottom 10% as compared with others). Having this significant weakness most often counters or negates the positive impact of profound strengths. In every case we have examined, fatal flaws appear to pull down the effectiveness of a leader. These cases are not rare or unusual. Statistically, we find that 28% of the population of leaders has one or more competencies at the 10th percentile or lower.

How to fix a fatal flaw

Fatal flaws are not easy to change, but improvement is possible; and the improvement will have a substantial impact. There are a series of steps that increase that probability.

  • Step 1: Acceptance

The first and most necessary step is for people to accept that they have a fatal flaw and that it will eventually be fatal to their career — if it has not already held them back. It obviously will not kill them physically, but it can permanently damage their career, negatively affect important relationships, inhibit promotions, and reduce the probability of personal success.

  • Step 2: Understand the behavior

Before people can change, they need to identify the problem behavior and then study the triggers that cause it to occur. If people can identify when the problem behavior occurs and what prompts it, they can start down the road to understanding and correcting it. It is important that people identify the events or stimuli that cause the behavior (e.g., “When I get in this kind of a situation with these stresses, I act out”).

  • Step 3: Create and make measurable a plan for change

Once people understand a problem sufficiently, the next step is to formulate a plan for change. This plan needs to lay out goals and activities that will demonstrate a significant change to others. One of the major planning failings is that people start with a general notion of change, but for change to occur, it needs to become specific. A general notion of change might be something like, “To fix my fatal flaw, I am going to be nicer.” Being nicer is a good start, but it is general to the point of being somewhat meaningless. What specifically does this mean?

  • Step 4: Apologize and ask for forgiveness

When appropriate, people may need to ask for the forgiveness of others in order for other people to accept that the change is occurring. Asking others for their forgiveness can be an extremely positive step in the change process. Asking forgiveness not only allows others to forgive and forget but also creates a higher level of accountability for the person making the change.

  • Step 5: Enlist the help of others

Many times, people work on improving fatal flaws without telling others of their plans or asking for help. Sometimes people are embarrassed by the fatal flaw, and so telling others they are working on changing and asking for their assistance is an act of humility they are not willing to take. The reality is that everyone is already aware of the problem. This is not a big secret, and by enlisting the assistance of others, the person attempting to change will feel the support and be able to take advantage of the good ideas shared by others.

  • Step 6: Reward progress

An important aspect of the change process that is often overlooked is to find a way to reward yourself for progress or achieving a goal. While just making the change is rewarding in its own right, identifying a reward for yourself when a goal has been achieved can be an excellent way to keep progress on track.

Joe Folkman is the president of Zenger Folkman and co-author of “How To Be Exceptional: Drive Leadership Success By Magnifying Your Strengths.