What Exactly Do You Mean by Anal? Thoughts on Leadership and Self-Awareness

I remember one time having an argument that went like this:

Dave:  I don’t think you’ve thought through the details on this one.

Joe:  I think there’s enough detail in there.

Dave:  No, there’s not.  There’s no underpinnings, there’s no rigor in the thought process.  Remember, David Ogilvy always said “good writing is slavery” and ergo you need to dive deep and —

Joe:  Oh, you can be so anal.

Dave:  I don’t think I’m being anal.  I’m just being rigorous.

Joe:  Yes, you are.

Dave:  Well, what exactly do you mean by anal?

I always try to listen to myself talk and once in a while I have a did-I-just-say-that moment.  Did I just say, “what exactly do you mean by anal?”  Oh shit, I did.  Isn’t that kind of the definition of being anal.  Oh shit, it is.  Heck Dave, you may as well just have replied:  what I really want to know is — is there a hyphen in anal-retentive?

The actual issue here is one of leadership:  being aware of your strengths and weaknesses, trying to avoid over-doing your strengths and working to compensate for your weaknesses.  It’s critical that all leaders focus on this because, by default, most folks will over-play to their strengths (to a fault, effectively turning them into weaknesses) and ignore their weaknesses.

It’s not hard to be self-aware when it comes to most strengths and weaknesses.  Most folks know, for example, if they’re great at public speaking and bad at financial analysis, or great at individual problem-solving but bad in groups.  Or high on IQ but low on EQ.  People usually know.

Sometimes we euphemize with ourselves.  For example, while others might say I’m:

  • Detail-oriented, I prefer “rigorous”
  • Blunt, I prefer “direct”
  • Contrarian, I prefer “critical-thinking”
  • And so on

But at least you’re circling the same pond.  You have awareness of the area –though you might soften how you think about it to protect the old ego, relative to how others might more bluntly, or should I say directly, describe it.

But some weaknesses are harder to self-assess.  For example, I’ve taken assessments that basically prove I’m low on flexibility.  But I never knew it.  In fact, I thought I was supremely flexible because I was capable of moving.  Think:  OK, we’ll move a bit in your direction.  You see, I’m flexible!  Voila, QED.  Bravo Chef!  I was, however, blind to the fact that one person’s mile is another’s inch.  When you’re inflexible you risk self-congratulation for a tidbit of demonstrated movement when the other party thinks you haven’t moved at all.

As another example, because communication is one of my strengths, I always thought I did better in groups, when in fact I do better with people one-to-one — which was a key strength of which I wasn’t even aware.  Some of these things are just hard to see.

My advice on this front is three-fold:

  • Be aware of your strengths and beware your natural tendency to overplay to them.  If one of your strengths has become a running joke (e.g., at one point one of my staff handed out “Captain Anal” pins), it could be time to think about it.
  • Be aware of your weaknesses and, while you can work on them if you want, use building a complementary team as your primary way to compensate.
  • Attend programs like LDP (managers, directors) or LAP (C-levels) to build a deep understanding of both.  These programs aren’t cheap, but they will give you self-awareness, in a kind of data-driven and ergo virtually undeniable way, that few other programs will.

(And can somebody please spell-check this thing to make sure there aren’t any errors.)

3 responses to “What Exactly Do You Mean by Anal? Thoughts on Leadership and Self-Awareness

  1. May I suggest you host your downloadable materials elsewhere given Scribd only gives you limited downloads? Unless you have a partnership with Scribd.

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