Career Advice

How To Find Your Secret Leadership Traits in 3 Easy Steps

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I spoke with a friend recently whose at a strange and frustrating career crossroads. She’s at a company she likes, and she has hopes of climbing the ranks. There’s someone in her way though: Herself.

She wants to move vertically, and be the one who’s leading projects, not just being assigned one-off tasks. The problem is, she’s a wait-too-long-to-strike kind of person, and takes too much caution for fear of failure.

Does this sound like you? Keep reading.

What if you looked at things differently? What if what you perceive as holding you back–your disadvantages–are actually your secret leadership traits?

The Theory of Desirable Difficulty

In Malcolm Gladwell’s David And Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, And The Art of Battling Giants, he presents a theory called the Theory of Desirable Difficulty.

The premise of the Theory is that what we typically see as disadvantages, can actually be used advantageously and produce better results because they force you to think deeper, take more risks, and find unconventional ways to solve problems.

A Simple Math Equation To Explain This Theory

Gladwell uses a classical math problem to explain the theory. Maybe you’ve seen this one before:

A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? Say your answer out loud before reading any further.

For most people, the instinctive answer is the ball costs 10 cents. That’s incorrect (don’t worry if you answered 10 cents, I did too, and most students at Princeton, MIT and and Carnegie Mellon got it wrong as well). If the bat cost $1 more than the ball, then the bat would have to cost $1.10 on its own, making the total of the bat AND the ball $1.20.

The correct answer is the ball costs 5 cents.

Remember now, the Theory of Desirable Difficulty states that disadvantages produce better results through deeper thinking.

So how did psychologists improve results on this test? They made it harder. They adjusted the font size, the color, and italicized it, which made it harder to read.

Basically, they made it look like this:

By making the question harder to read, it forces you to squint and read it a couple times to ensure you’ve read it correctly. And from reading it a couple times over, you spend more time thinking about the solution, instead of jumping to a conclusion. By creating a disadvantage, significantly more people answer this question correctly. The difficulty turns out to be desirable.

Dyslexia As A Desirable Difficulty

Gladwell goes into several examples to further explain the Theory, including how one man, Brian Grazer, used Dyslexia to his advantage.

Grazer consistently got C’s, D’s, and F’s in school. He couldn’t possibly be successful, right? Or was this a Desirable Difficulty?

He wasn’t anywhere near the smartest, the fastest learner, or academically gifted in anyway. But his condition, Dyslexia–his disadvantage–forced him to think deeper, take more risks, and find unconventional ways to solve problems.

What did he do? He challenged all of his grades.

“Literally every time…I would go back to each teacher and do a one-on-one,”says Grazer in the book.

“I would argue my D into a C, and my C into a B…99% of the time I got my grade changed. I would just wear them down. I got really good at it. In college, I would study, knowing that I was going to have this hour-long meeting afterward with my professor. I learned how to do everything possible to sell my point. It was really good training.”

What was this training for? Grazer had essentially mastered the art of negotiation and selling by the time he graduated college. This allowed him to rise to the top of his profession–He’s now one of the most successful producers in Hollywood (ever seen 24, A Beautiful Mind, or American Gangster? Grazer produced all of them).

Dyslexia forced him into a situation where he became an expert at other skills that most people never even learn. He made his disadvantage a Desirable Difficulty, and turned it into two powerful leadership traits.

A Simple 3-Step Method To Find Your Secret Leadership Traits

What if YOU looked at your disadvantages as Desirable Difficulties? If you force yourself to see what you DO know, by analyzing what you DON’T, you will find your secret leadership traits.

Let’s go back to the disadvantage of my friend I mentioned at the start.

She wants to move vertically within her company, and be the one who’s leading projects, not just being assigned one-off tasks. The problem is, she’s a wait-too-long-to-strike kind of person, and takes too much caution for fear of failure.

Here’s the 3-step method to follow to take advantage of your Desirable Difficulty, and find your secret leadership traits:

Step 1: Write down the goal
I want to move vertically within my company, and be the one leading projects.

Step 2: Write down the perceived disadvantage
I’m a wait-too-long-to-strike kind of person, taking too much caution for fear of failure.

Step 3: Find the advantages of your Desirable Difficulty that will help you achieve your goal
In this step, write down a list of everything your perceived disadvantage has made you GREAT at. For anyone who has the perfectionist mindset just like our student, I’ll bet it’s made you great at, AT LEAST:

  1. Conducting research
  2. Asking questions (and lots of them) to understand as many perspectives as possible
  3. Listening to others (typically when you’re afraid to speak up, it heightens your listening skills)

Follow this simple 3-step process to uncover your secret leadership traits, and you will BECOME the leader who others look up to.

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