You may have seen the movie, “Troy,” with Brad Pitt as Achilles, greatest of the Greek warriors in the Trojan War. What the movie didn’t cover was how Achilles got to be so great. In Greek mythology, Achilles was the son of the sea nymph Thetis and Peleus, king of the Myrmidons. The Fates prophesied that Achilles would die in the Trojan War, but Thetis sought to secure a different destiny for her son. She took him to the River Styx (the entrance to the underworld), held him by his ankle and dipped him into the water. As a result, Achilles became invulnerable everywhere on his body except for the heel with which his mother held him over the river.
Years later, Paris, prince of Troy, abducted the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta. The Greeks rallied behind the offense and set off with 1,000 ships for Troy. Despite Thetis’ attempts to prevent Achilles from going to Troy, her son was persuaded by Odysseus to join the effort. The Greeks lay a long siege to the city. During the tenth and final year, Achilles was mortally wounded by a well-aimed shot from Paris’ bow. The arrow struck him in the heel, his only vulnerable spot.
The term “Achilles Heel” has come to mean a weakness that seems small but is in fact potentially fatal. Many leaders have an Achilles Heel. Sometimes they know that it exists, and sometimes they are blind to it. It can go undiscovered for years until they are given a challenge that exposes their shortcoming, but once it is revealed, it is almost always fatal to their forward motion.
Some managers have an Achilles Heel in their ability to deal with people. Like Achilles, they are tactically superb, receive accolades from high levels, move up through the organization with dexterity and speed, but they leave dead bodies everywhere they go. As long as they move quickly enough, no one traces the destruction back to them. But once they reach a spot on the battlefield that will not yield (i.e. get stalled out in a position), those around them begin to make the connections. And once their Achilles Heel has been located, it’s not long before their enemies use it for advantage.
The best managers identify their Achilles Heel by seeking frequent feedback from all levels and all directions (e.g. through a 360 degree evaluation). In this way, their enemies become their allies, helping them to identify their weaknesses. Once they have identified their Achilles Heel, they take steps to strengthen or eliminate their weakness through training, coaching, difficult assignments and other means. They never allow success to be an excuse for not growing.