I admit it: I struggled over this month’s lead article. Specifically, I struggled over the title. Here are some of the attempts I tried and deleted:
– Why It’s Right to be Wrong
– How Perfection Can Work Against You
– To Err is Human
– Sometimes Your Baby is Ugly
(That last one was just to see if you’re paying attention!)
Why the dilemma? For the same reason many of you get stuck when you’re trying to communicate: Am I going for style, or for substance? You see, I know from your feedback that my more provocative titles get a response and I like that affirmation. On the other hand, I want you to find value and substance in my articles and a flippant title might misrepresent the content. Hence, my struggle.
So how does my dilemma relate to this month’s message? Simply put: For leaders to connect, they need to come down off their pedestals and show that they are, in fact, human beings, with the same hopes, fears and flaws as the rest of us. People appreciate the leader who struggled a bit, overcame obstacles, and triumphed in the end. They hope they can emerge equally triumphant. The leader’s victory over adversity becomes inspirational. This is counter-intuitive to many leaders who fear flaws equate to weakness. But consider this: One of my Executive Presence seminar participants relayed that she had a hard time trusting her department head because “she’s too perfect – she never makes a mistake, she never wears the wrong outfit, she never says the wrong thing…it’s a little creepy.” Yes, like a face with too much Botox – flawless, but unreadable, unknowable.
How can leaders be more authentic and real, increasing the likelihood that people will see them as accessible and trustworthy?
Begin by showing a little “relevant vulnerability,” to quote Terry Pearce. In his book Leading Out Loud Pearce says a critical element to building trust is “knowing and acknowledging what you don’t bring to the table.” You don’t know all the answers, but you can ask really good questions to find out. You don’t have the details on Process X, but you’ve got good people around you who do. You haven’t mastered a certain skill, but you’re willing to admit it and ask for help…or go to training, or work with a coach, or read a book. Notice that each of these “don’ts” has a supportive action that allows your good people to lend their support or expertise. Imagine the morale boost when you acknowledge their expertise by asking them for help. Imagine how much more real and authentic you’ll seem when you reveal that bit of relevant vulnerability called “I don’t know everything.”
The perfect leader is a myth as long as leaders are human beings. Our flaws are as unique as our fingerprints. The Liberty Bell needs no caption – we recognize her familiar crack. As long as those flaws don’t render the leader incapable, weaknesses are simply opportunities for growth and partnership.