More so than the general population, fans of the NFL are keenly aware of the Achilles tendon. Injuries to this tendon connecting the heel of the foot to the bottom of the calf muscle regularly fell NFL players. These injuries are devastating: they often occur away from contact, and are season ending, even when the injury strikes before the season really gets started (like here, here, here, here, and here).
The tendon’s name comes from the Greek mythology surrounding one of the all-time great warriors in history or literature: Achilles. The central star of The Iliad, Homer’s epic poem about the Trojan War, Achilles was said to be invincible with the exception of a single, tiny fatal flaw. Achilles’ invincibility came from the protective properties of the underworld’s river Styx, into which Achilles’ mother dipped him as a child in order to protect him from death. Because Achilles’ mother held him by the heel while dipping him in the river, his heel missed out on the river’s magical effect. Thus, his fatal flaw was born, and would be the source of his demise: Achilles’ death came when an arrow from the Trojan prince Paris (and guided by the god Apollo) struck Achilles in his lone spot of vulnerability — his heel.
As leaders, we all have vulnerabilities. Truly fatal flaws, however, are rarely physical or skills based. Deficiencies in knowledge or skill can be overcome with education and experience. Rarely does an organization suffer because its leader didn’t know how to operate some software, work a tool, or do a calculation. The real fatal flaws for leaders are psychological and emotional, and acute self-awareness is required to know what yours is before one of Life’s arrows identifies it for you.
For me, it is Frustration. Regardless of what generates it, Frustration is the emotion I have the hardest time handling appropriately. Too often my inability to process Frustration in a healthy manner causes my impact on the people around me to morph into something altogether negative: my insights ferment into diatribes, and the light I think I’m bringing to a problem becomes overshadowed by the emotional heat of my delivery. Instead of being a source of help to those around me, my unchecked Frustration turns me into yet another problem for the people around me to deal with and protect themselves from. This single flaw has the capacity to undo all of my strengths and cripple my impact as a Leader, regardless of how long the list of my strengths may be. In the words of Seth Godin from his tiny but worthwhile book Poke the Box:
Poking successfully also requires tact. You’re trying to change things, not have people recoil in anger or fear from your poking.
This outsized negative impact is the definition of a fatal flaw, and illustrates why identifying it and having a plan to compensate for it is so vital to anyone with any level of leadership responsibility. For some, their Achilles-like flaw is Fear of Change. For others, it is inability to stick with a plan through a rough patch in the face of the urge to DO SOMETHING! Sometimes the fatal flaw is dealing with Success itself. It could be the tendency to avoid risk that comes from a Fear of Failure … or it could be the blindness of Hubris that comes from believing too much in your own capabilities and dismissing failure as an impossible possibility. Loneliness, the Approval of others, an inability to handle Criticism, or a soft spot for the empty words of Sycophancy … whatever form your special weakness takes, know this: identify it for yourself and make a plan to deal with it, or Life will find it for you, usually with the business end of a poisoned arrow aimed with an epic precision.