Often the image of a leader is a figure of strength – all powerful and all knowing. Personally speaking, I have found this to be a flawed leadership construct. My personal experience suggests that people prefer their leaders with an appropriate balance of confidence and humility. Yet, one of the greatest challenges many leaders struggle with is embracing (and revealing) their own vulnerabilities.
As a younger man, I thought a leader needed to appear flawless. It was my Dad who taught me otherwise. Towards the end of his life, he was the mayor of our hometown. He was giving an Independence Day speech and used the word “ain’t” several times. Afterwards, I thought it was my duty to offer my father some constructive feedback on the correct use of English.
He listened intently, smiled and said, “Son, people prefer their leaders with flaws, because it makes leadership more attainable for the rest of us.” He went on to explain: “This is who I am, and each of them in the audience have their own opportunities to improve. But once they recognize that I can be mayor without being perfect, then maybe one of them will be inspired to be mayor after me, because they know they aren’t perfect either.”
He was right. The truth is that none of us are perfect. Deep down inside, each of us is painfully aware of the chinks in our own armor. We often harbor a secret desire that nobody finds out that we aren’t as gifted as others might think we are. The truth is that most people feel this way – and having the strength to express this common truth makes your teams feel better about both you, and themselves.
I have found that showing vulnerability does not undercut a leader’s capacity to inspire teams, but rather it enhances it. Role modeling that life is an experiment, openly admitting and learning from your own shortcomings and mistakes creates an environment for others to do the same. It is one of the ways we move forward and grow as individuals, and as teams.
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So my lesson learned from my father so many years ago remains a leadership principle I try to follow to this day. Always be authentic, embrace your vulnerability and get up there and make a mistake. It makes you more human – and a better leader.
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