No one ever argues against the concept of leveraging complementary strengths. Yet few really do it. Why? Because it only really works if you believe that someone else’s strength offsets one of your own weaknesses. And only the most confident embrace their own weaknesses. Not you. Not after reading this. Find your area of relative weakness and partner with someone who has that as a relative strength.

You can figure out almost any situation by deciphering how people, plans and practices align around a shared purpose. Leadership is about inspiring and enabling others to do their absolute best together to realize a meaningful and rewarding shared purpose. If you don’t buy that or can’t do that, stop reading now. This article is not for you.

Aside from setting the vision and values that make up a shared purpose, most leaders are unbalanced. They are relatively stronger (and relatively weaker) across the dimensions of people (organizational process,) plans (strategic process,) and practices (operational process.)

If your relative weakness is people/organizational process, make sure you partner with a strong chief human resource officer.

If your relative weakness is plans/strategic process, make sure you partner with a strong strategist. That person could be your CFO, CMO, VP of strategy, Board Chair or the like. Their title doesn’t matter. Their strength does.

If your relative weakness is practices/operational process, make sure you partner with a strong chief operating officer. This is my own relative weakness. In every one of my last real jobs before starting PrimeGenesis, I always had a strong COO. I’d explain to them that they needed to manage that area completely as they were better at it (and more interested in it) than I was.

Note if you’re one of those rare people with balanced strengths, you need a strong chief of staff to give you leverage.

Make sense so far?

Actually, this is the easy part. It’s not really that hard to bring in a subordinate with a strength that offsets your relative weakness. You’re still in control. You still get credit for their success.

The real test is being vulnerable enough to admit your relative weakness to partner with a peer with a complementary relative strength. This requires big time confidence. This requires a fundamental belief in the synergy of complementary strengths.

There are, of course, some natural partnerships. Think in terms of

  • Magazine publishers (focused on the business side) and editors (focused on the content)
  • Advertising copy writers (words) and art directors (pictures)
  • Musicians like Elton John (music) and lyricists like Bernie Taupin (words)

Almost by definition, people with complementary strengths see things differently. Those differences will create disagreements. The key to their working relationship is their attitude to those disagreements. People who try to get their partners to accept their point of view don’t last as partners. The ones who last are the ones who try to meld the different points of view into something even better together.

If you’re perfect (in your own mind) stop here if you haven’t stopped before. You don’t need anyone’s help including mine. If you’re willing to accept your imperfections and find someone with complementary strengths, follow the steps forward.

Steps Forward

  1. Assess. Do an honest self-assessment. Identify and own your relative weaknesses. Determine which one relative weakness is most important to shore up. This will be the one that will allow you and someone with a complementary strength to have the greatest impact together on something you most care about effecting.
  2. Partner. Find someone with a complementary strength who shares the same values as you. This is about what matters and why. You both need to care about the same things and follow the same guiding principles. Make sure you both have the same end in mind.
  3. Ratchet. Embrace the differences. It’s not about figuring out which one of you is right. It’s about taking each other’s best thinking higher step by step. It’s about taking each other higher step by step. It’s about taking your organization higher step by step.

Click here for a list of my Forbes articles and a summary of my book on executive onboarding: The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan.