Our Fatal Flaw

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This week, a Harvard Business Review post caught my eye. The post was entitled: Most Leaders Know Their Strengths – but Are Oblivious to Their Weaknesses. In it, the authors make the point that in the 360 feedback surveys they administer, they frequently discover one or more “fatal flaws” – “weaknesses that are so extreme that they can have a dramatic negative effect on a leader, seriously hampering their contribution to the organization and their career progress.”

The authors go on to point out that the leaders are typically unaware of their fatal flaws and the weaknesses uncovered are normally “sins of omission” meaning things the leader doesn’t do rather than direct behaviors of the leader.

Before I continue, let me say that I believe in being self-aware. We must have a sense of our strengths, weaknesses, fears, doubts, likes, and dislikes. In addition, to be effective in a society in which we coexist with other human beings, we must be able to “dial-in” to the feelings of others to some degree and be able to respond appropriately. These basics are critical to our effectiveness and help us thrive.

However, as I read the article, all I could see was one more example of healthy self-awareness being turned into its dark cousin, self-obsession. Fatal flaws? Really? What are we not doing that is holding us back? Not being courteous? Not following through? Not being accountable? Not being nice? Not listening? Not caring? Failing to be human? Do we need others to tell us that?

I would argue the opposite. We are hyper self-aware. In fact, we are so aware of our flaws, failings, doubts, and weaknesses that we spend billions every year on therapists, coaches, counselors consultants, advisors, etc. to help us identify and deal with our shortcomings. Consider your reaction to your consultant highlighting your fatal flaws: one more thing to obsess over. Another set of personal issues to be fixed.

We already live in a world riddled by an inability to cope. Anxiety is rampant. Depression commonplace. The billions we spend on others to help us deal with it all is only exceeded by the billions we spend on medications to help us manage our anxiety, depression, and any other discomfort that plagues us.

Considering a 360 survey designed to identify our issues as identified by those we work with, I wonder what it helps move us to: More empathy? More forgiveness? More understanding? More love? More effectiveness? Probably not. The process is more likely to equip us with more justification, rationalization, and equivocation as we internalize the clearly documented opinions of others and seek to build the complex internal defense framework necessary to keep our sense of self intact.

There is a point where feedback becomes ineffective and in a world of persistent self-obsession, that line comes closer and closer as we throw more fuel on the feedback fire. Once we’ve identified our “fatal flaws”, what do we do with them? How do we know if they are situational or a reflection of a personality conflict, jealousy, or some other ax to grind? Do my flaws appear universally or is it my work environment? How far do we need to dive into our own brokenness before we can start to fix everything? How do I fix my personality?

The overall result is not clarity but more complexity. We think we gain understanding when we are actually creating excuses layered on top of a carefully crafted profile of us as flawed creatures. The more we ‘uncover,’ the more our narrative takes on a life of its own. Memories become sound bites morphing into a psychological equation of ‘if this, then that’ until we finally stop on the answer of the day. The rationalization necessary for us to maintain some grip on our own sense of self and any remnant of positive reflection therein.

No, the answers to our problems don’t necessarily lie in more self-awareness. They lie in moving self out of the center of our universe. Until we can stop trying to build equations to answers and thereby trying to control the world around us, we are going to thrash against the realities of life. Until we can let go of self to a significant degree and focus beyond it, we will continue to struggle with all of the dark impositions of its grip on us. Our relentless focus on self puts us in opposition to the world and those around us.

Our true fatal flaw is self-obsession. Our need for control is as insidious as our persistent self-doubt and comes from the same source. We are out of balance with our environment. Our wants so far exceed our needs that we are left with the empty feeling of less every time we calculate our own inventory. In that calculation, we feel simultaneously inadequate and ungracious. 

What is the answer? Balance. Equilibrium. Patience. Hope. Seek to understand your tendencies but be willing to live with them. Strive to be all that you can be while allowing for life’s impositions. Work to mitigate the discomforts while accepting that there will be pain. Aim for harmony with others knowing that you cannot control the struggles between their ears. Battle for your dreams knowing that there is only so much you can, or should, control. Hope for something more even as you cling to the faith that you are and will be exactly where you need to be.

Stop seeking your fatal flaws and imbue each moment with your best effort and intention. If we can do that, perhaps we’ll find less need to continue to ask the mirror who is the fairest of them all and finally begin to see ourselves simply as the fairest version of what we were made to be.


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