Many (most?) of the books and articles written about how to be a good leader concentrate on some aspect of vulnerability — what it is and what it isn’t. Much of it encourages us to simply be more open with those we work with, to trust and share power. Here I want to talk about our humanity, not pretending that because we have attained a leadership position we have it all figured out: that we have all the answers and all the confidence. The truth is, we do not check our humanity at the door when we assume a position of leadership.
Being real or “acting normal,” as I often refer to it, is the right thing to do for many obvious reasons. First, it’s just the right thing to do. Second, it allows everyone else to act normal, to take risks and contribute more. This means you allow for the natural flow of information and creativity so others aren’t worried about being right all the time. Third, you imply (by modeling) that in the workplace everyone continues to learn and grow. This should be obvious but is often stifled by a culture that talks incessantly about performance, a culture that essentially scares employees about making mistakes or keeps them on the lookout for ways to deflect responsibility.
What is particularly important in discussions about leadership is the need for self-awareness: knowing your strengths and weaknesses. I prefer using the word weaknesses instead of challenges because these days challenges seems steeped with pride. We all have weaknesses — we lose track of deadlines, we work too fast, we hover. Some strengths can also be a weakness — being highly driven is a weakness if you expect everyone around you to be similarly intense; they likely still are creative, responsible, and hard working.
On a personal front, I talk to my colleagues about my own weaknesses and am specific about how I get into trouble, what I would like them to notice, and how best to interact with me when they notice that I’m going down the path toward trouble. This is not abdicating responsibility but being realistic and building in safeguards. In no way do I feel (or am) diminished by my weaknesses, although I have struggled with them for a lifetime and did at one time feel diminished. But I found a way to face myself and those around me, opening up, taking responsibility, and being accountable. Weaknesses are normal, and being open about them is something that everyone can identify with because it’s simply part of being human.
Just to be clear, I’m not talking about airing your dirty laundry and telling everyone what’s going on in your life. There are times when this is inevitable, say with divorce or death, but as a general rule we need to exercise good judgment, finding the right line to walk. I am, however, talking about our skills and abilities, the decisions we make in the workplace, navigating the complex relationships, planning and executing the work.
We come to work as we come to life as whole human beings with our strengths and weaknesses. Our goal is to continuously increase our self-awareness. Gaining self-awareness comes from reflection, rigorous debriefing with co-workers, and asking specific questions of others to get insightful feedback. Collaboration like this is essential because it is very difficult for all of us to fully assess the impact we have on others. Good leaders know this and find ways to get feedback that is essential to change. It’s one of the most effective ways to be real with others.