Hiking Your Strengths: How Staying on the Trail Can Energize Your Leadership and Success
If you ever visit my hometown you’ll notice several peaks that jut up from the coastal valley — ancient volcanoes dotting the landscape. One in particular offers incredible views of San Luis Obispo, the coastal range, and a glimpse of the ocean.
One morning some friends and I parked at the trailhead and headed up a dusty trail just before dawn. About a mile in we began to wander across the open meadow heading toward what we thought was a secondary trail — we were hopeful this “shortcut” would quicken our pace.
Unable to reconnect with any trail we spent the next several hours scrapping our shins on manzanita, trudging through thick chaparral and searching hopelessly for a trail in dim morning light.
Shrouded by the peak, we missed the sunrise that day and our ninety-minute hike turned into a full day adventure.
I think that hike provides an apt — albeit limited — analogy of how our strengths and weaknesses impact our ability to lead and succeed. So, follow me on a brief journey.
Imagine your mind is a peak you’ve hiked thousands of time.
Each hike you take is a series of steps — thoughts and actions — representing the ways you prefer to solve problems, build friendships, inspire others, or accomplish mundane tasks.
According to Gallup, the way we do life, approach challenges, and see the world is based largely on our unique combination of strengths.
Your strengths are both hardwired and honed to efficiency. By analogy, hiking routes represent our different approaches to work.
You began blazing and maintaining certain trails as a child.
I see, this in my own children — like the way our 4yr old daughter organizes toys and tracks doll accessories, or the way our 2yr old can read our dinner conversation well enough to unload a timely knock-knock joke and shift the mood.
With encouragement and perceived success, my kids clear and maintain particular trails — hiking them more frequently, and with increasing ease.
Through repeated practice, those trails are manicured, becoming preferred routes for solving problems, engaging relationships, inspiring others, and getting work done. Through repeated practice, you get really good at doing things a particular way — you are honing strengths.
What was once rugged terrain, you have cleared, marked, and frequented. These paths become preferred — your favorite ways to approach people and ideas. They are easy to traverse, efficient, and energizing.
Occasionally, however, we stray from our preferences.
Like my sunrise hike, there are times we leave our strengths to struggle through thickets, or boulder around small crags. These alternatives can work. Sometimes they even offer fresh perspective, but they are exhausting.
You might stray out of your strengths for efficiency. You might believe you are “working on your weaknesses,” or you might imagine working in your weakness is the only option for a particular situation.
Regardless of the reason, remember that in this analogy straying from the path leads to exhaustion.
Like the manicured trail, our strengths provide efficient and energizing approaches to problem solving, relationship building, leadership provision, and achievement.
Like our weaknesses, the thickets and crags prove inefficient and exhausting. It’s not that you can’t work out of your weaknesses — at times it’s all you can offer — but your strengths will energize and motivate you.
Staying on the trail gets you where you want to go.
Are you struggling through thickets and crags unnecessarily? Is your team spending too much time bouldering?
Maybe you’re spending too much time clearing new trails in areas of weakness, when you could be gaining valuable ground — and preserving emotional energy — by realigning work around your strengths.
I’ve got 3 simple habits I encourage clients to practice, that help individuals and team align around their strengths, and energize their work by “hiking clear trails”:
- Reflect daily. Ask yourself where you spend most of your time hiking—the trail, the meadow, in thickets, or bouldering the crag.
- Rethink your routines to maximize your time on the trail. Are their off-trail tasks that can actually be accomplished within your strengths? Or by a different team member who sees that task as trail time? Maybe there’s a hidden trail — a strength you can leverage — that will bypass the thickets.
- Remember that time on trail will energize you. Try to finish your days (and weeks) with some trail hiking. You’ll show up stronger for friends and family, and they’ll thank you for it. [Or, if you’re like me, forget the analogy and literally go hiking at the end of a long day.]
If your job is all trails, consider yourself lucky.
Most of us face at least some work that feels like thickets and crags. When you do, remember that even thickets and crags can be overcome — at a cost.
Too many of thickets & crags, too often, might cause you to miss the sunrise.