Leadership and influence are never perfected, only practiced. If you hold yourself separate as the one who has to “get it right” and have all the answers, you weaken your influence as a leader.
The most influential person in the room has the confidence to say, “I don’t have all the answers—I’m interested in what you think.” Entrepreneurs usually start out this way, but as the company grows and functions more like a business, they can fall into the trap of trying to manage their image.
Lessons in leadership from Hugh McColl, Jr.
A few years ago, I heard former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl, Jr. speak to a group of entrepreneurs. We were there to hear about his philosophy, wisdom and advice.
McColl talked about his life lessons. He reminisced about growing up in Bennettsville, South Carolina. His father was a cotton farmer first, and a banker second. Someone asked, “Did you ever consider farming?” and he responded, “I didn’t have the brains for farming.”
We laughed and listened as though we were in the company of a dear friend as he shared his mistakes and the things his life had taught him.
People respond to the real person behind the title. The human being with imperfections, passions, doubts, strengths and weaknesses.
No one is perfect, tireless and without fault or reproach. So, pursuing perfection means you will remain unknowable, and a leader without real influence. People will only trust you to the extent that they know you.
The superhero trap
Flying in like the superhero is seductive to leaders—but perfection doesn’t exist in the ranks of humanity. One business owner (we’ll call him Dave) told me this, “I’m the owner. I’m the only one who can provide the solution to this problem.” Dave was under extraordinary pressure from the outside, but he was making his job more difficult and causing his team to distrust him by leaving them out.
Research conducted by Dr. Brené Brown shows that perfectionism hampers achievement and is correlated with missed opportunities. It separates leaders from healthy competition and a potential major blow to greatness.
Leaders who try to be perfect, self-sufficient and all-knowing wind up having to throw their weight around and keep others at arm’s length. They focus mostly on keeping up the display of bullet-proof competence.
Of course, competence isn’t a bad thing, but a hyper-focus suggests a trade-off. You do not have to choose between imperfection and competence. Imperfection and vulnerability are not weaknesses. They require true strength of character—which is influence at its best.
When you practice imperfection (a/k/a humanness) you release your team from the fear of not meeting your expectations and being criticized. These are the things that block innovation and collaboration.
5 ways you can practice imperfection:
- Lead with questions, not answers. If you arrive with the right answer, people will withhold their best stuff—the very stuff that may lead to the next breakthrough. Learn the art of inquiry. Ask questions that begin with, “What have you noticed, how do you think we could improve, what is keeping us stuck, what do you love about it?”
- Share lessons learned, admit mistakes. We are drawn to leaders who are not only very smart, but have the confidence to kick back and laugh at their own mistakes. We like and trust people who are personable and regular. Know-it-all-ness is off-putting and stifles innovation. The leader with natural influence says, “Let me tell you about something I learned the hard way,” instead of dictating the course to take.
- Leave room for others to be right. Watch out for the destructive practice of making people wrong. Even if their idea is not the way to go, acknowledge the contribution. When teammates have the opportunity to be right, they have more spontaneity and freedom of expression. When you establish a safe environment in which people have the opportunity to be right, they will take ownership of the results.
- Demand feedback, welcome challenge. Let the team know you won’t tolerate compliance for the sake of pleasing you—and that you have no need for yes men and yes women. Ask, “What do you need from me to nail this project?” And “What am I missing on my end?” We trust and engage with leaders who are not threatened by people who speak their mind to offer value.
- Change your mind. The confident leader understands it is not necessary to be the only Big Deal in the company. Cemented certainty can lead to pride of ownership and close mindedness. On the other hand, if people know they can approach you and make a case for another solution on a project, you will always be presented with the best ideas to maintain a competitive edge. If someone has a better idea, change your mind along with the course of action. You will earn the reputation of being fair and open-minded.
Hey, nobody said leadership was a walk in the park. To be vulnerable and imperfect requires courage. But the challenge of living in the white water of change is too complicated to rest solely on one person’s shoulders. We need every person in the place—all working together to re-invent the company while keeping up with current customer demands.
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