“We need a perspective on growth and development that’s focused on where we as well as others are naturally gifted.”
Why Make Eagles Swim? is a book about valuing strengths and ignoring weaknesses. Management coach Bill Munn advocates persuasively for an engagement philosophy that identifies and develops people’s inherent talents so they can soar higher (like eagles) instead of struggling to improve areas of weakness (teaching eagles to swim better). He challenges the ‘myth of well-roundedness’; the idea that everyone should strive to be good at everything, and illustrates through real-life stories how an attributes-based approach is more effective in attaining personal and organizational success.
An attribute is an inherent trait or characteristic that influences your perception of and behaviour toward the world around you. Drawing on years of personal and corporate experience, Munn has created 14 archetypal attribute profiles to describe these inherent traits. Some people are natural communicators, others more conceptual and strategic. Creators are inspired to act on new ideas while logicians analyze for cause and effect. Each of us is a unique blend of these 14 attributes – some very strong, others more subdued. Understanding and recognizing these attributes in ourselves and others opens up a different way of valuing and utilizing our collective strengths.
The Big Idea
Watch and Listen for Relevance
"As important as it is to uncover our own attribute profiles, one of the most powerful applications of this concept actually lies in tuning into the traits of others."
I confess my initial focus as I was reading this book was to discover my own attribute profile. I was relieved to learn that self-awareness is an essential first step as we are prone to interpreting others’ behaviours through the lenses of our own strongest attributes and biggest challenge areas. If you’ve ever said to yourself, “I don’t understand how he can do that/be that way” you are likely seeing the situation through the lens of your own attributes.
Munn suggests we can discover clues to the attributes of others simply by becoming more active and engaged listeners. Rather than listening for content, Munn wants us to watch and listen for relevance; to pay attention to what someone’s words and actions reveal about their natural attributes. For example, when someone says “She must have felt awful,” it suggests they can’t imagine not feeling that way. This individual cares how others feel and is highly empathic. Similarly we often react negatively to attributes that oppose our own. By paying attention to what ‘drives us crazy’ in others, we can identify their inherent strengths and our areas of weakness.
Munn warns us not to jump to conclusions based on a single comment or action. Instead he advises readers to look for patterns over time and, when in doubt, to ask questions to clarify any assumptions you might be making. One fun way to practice listening for relevance is to watch interviews, movies and TV shows. Take note of what people or characters said and did that might reveal their strengths and weaknesses. It’s a low risk environment and gives you an excuse for binge watching a season’s worth of Big Bang Theory or House of Cards this weekend!
"By working with and valuing people who are different from you, you can propel your personal growth – and your effectiveness in the workplace – to the next level."
I listen to a jazz radio station and one song that numerous artists have covered is “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” written by George and Ira Gershwin. You may recognize its “You like to-may-toes and I like to-mah-toes” stanza and the quandary of ending a relationship with someone you love because they pronounce words (either, neither, potatoes, pajamas) differently. It sounds ridiculous and yet so often we let differences divide us rather than strengthen us.
Munn shares the story of Diane and Harry, two executives with opposing strengths, who frequently clashed when working together. Diane is a ‘developer’ focused on growing the skills of her team. She is also a ‘learner’ who gathers extensive information before making a decision. Harry is her opposite: a ‘decisive’, in-charge guy (commander) who makes decisions quickly and pays little attention to his team beyond how they achieve their objectives. With the attributes paradigm as a point of reference, each learned something from the other’s style that improved their own personal effectiveness. Diane observed that her team’s performance suffered when she did not promptly address unacceptable individual contributions. Harry recognized he could avoid costly errors if he explored issues more fully and assigned tasks to align with individual strengths.
We inadvertently trip ourselves up when we view some attributes as strengths and others as weaknesses. Attributes are neutral – neither positive nor negative. When we adopt this mindset, we will start to recognize opportunities to appreciate and leverage the natural strengths of our colleagues for the benefit of all concerned.
Dark Needs Light and Day Needs Night
"The attributes that are most at odds are actually the pairs that most need each other."
Consider these two sayings:
- Opposites attract.
- Birds of a feather flock together.
Which one is true? Of course, both are true…and both are false. People enjoy interacting with others who share similar values, hobbies, dreams and social status. We are also drawn to people strong in traits we wish we had. Yet, opposites don’t always attract: there are people who simply ‘rub us the wrong way’ and we try to minimize our interactions with them.
Munn suggests that the real lesson of attribute-based leadership is this: the very attribute you would naturally avoid working with is probably the one that is best suited to help you. We saw this in action with Diane and Harry. When you catch yourself becoming judgmental of another person’s approach, remind yourself that all attributes have value. Ask questions to explore the opposing perspective and challenge your own preferences in service of the larger goal.
Beyond individual learning and development, attributes can positively influence and improve hiring decisions, team composition, problem-solving, and employee engagement. Identify your current team members’ natural strengths and align the work they are doing with those strengths. Fill vacancies with people who possess different yet complementary attribute profiles and educate your team about the benefits this diversity will yield.
I found the attributes framework presented in Why Make Eagles Swim? a refreshing change from the fix-your-weaknesses philosophy often encountered in the workplace. Using practical and insightful examples from his corporate practice, Bill Munn showed how a strengths-based paradigm promotes mutual understanding and appreciation, and establishes a foundation for more meaningful engagement and collaboration.
While eagles can swim when they need to, it’s a situational necessity not a natural preference. How many employees in your organization are expending valuable time, energy and resources trying to make situational gains in areas that are not aligned with their natural strengths? Now, imagine the difference if you instead focused them on doing more of what they do best. Bill Munn and I envision your employees and your organization soaring to new heights!