Mark Craemer No Comments

“There are three essentials to leadership: humility, clarity and courage.” – Cha’n Master Fuchan Yuan

In a recent Wall Street Journal article Famous Job Interviews Through the Ages, Joe Queenan states that asking job applicants what their weaknesses are is a stupid question.

“This is a rude, intrusive question, and nobody should be required to answer it,” Queenan says. “It is a trick question designed to put the applicant at a disadvantage.”

Although Queenan’s article is meant to poke fun at how famous historical figures would answer many of today’s standard interview questions, it’s clear that he seriously thinks there is no value in questions such as the above.

I couldn’t disagree more.

Open ended questions like what are your weaknesses can indicate a level of self-awareness, which I believe is very important. Being able to articulate your mistakes and failures demonstrates that you may have learned something from them rather than simply been successful at hiding them.

As any journalist knows, there is an art to asking questions that get to the heart of the matter. Sometimes direct questions are best and sometimes it’s better to take a more nuanced approach. Regardless, if you want to really judge whether someone is up to the task at hand, you should ask open-ended questions that enable the candidate to reveal who they are.

Leaders who know their strengths and weaknesses and can articulate them to others effectively demonstrates the self-awareness necessary to lead others. This ability also indicates a certain amount of humility and perhaps this is something missing in our leaders more than any other trait.

Queenen goes on, “ . . . the presumption that people have weaknesses is un-American. It is defeatist and sad. The whole point of being American is to feel invincible, that one is incapable of being improved upon.”

This reminds me of the U.S. education system compared with others around the world. While our students are no longer among the strongest in mathematics and other disciplines, we remain highest in our confidence.

Can this confidence and feeling of invincibility therefore override our weaknesses? I suggest it cannot and we would be foolish to think it can.

While I am all for building confidence in ourselves, I think doing this at the expense of acknowledging our weaknesses can be problematic. It can also lead us into trouble because we end up hiring the wrong people, listening to the wrong pundits, and following the wrong leaders.

Think of the overly confident CEO who takes a company down the wrong path leading to bankruptcy and lay-offs. Or a President of the country who takes our soldiers into harm’s way in wars he is confident about.

While focusing on weaknesses too much will never get anyone hired, those who are aware of their own weaknesses are more likely to deal with them. A CEO would hire others with strengths to complement his or her own competency. A President could include expert advisors capable of telling the leader of the free world when he or she is mistaken.

Any employee worth hiring should be aware of and capable of articulating their weaknesses. As much as we all want to hire confident employees, don’t minimize the importance of humility in them. Employees who are aware of and can articulate their weaknesses are stronger employees.

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