In my work as a leadership coach I regularly encounter senior managers and directors who desire to become leaders, but many fail to understand that the leap is much more than a title, salary and corner office.
Leadership isn’t so much appointed as it is earned through your management track record and, perhaps just as importantly, the soft skills you demonstrate.
Soft skills include the ability to communicate clearly and effectively, inspire people to deliver their best, organizational savvy, courage to make hard decisions, and the ability to admit you don’t have all the answers. This last one means demonstrating humility and often runs counter to what we expect in our leaders.
“In a culture of scarcity and perfectionism, asking for help can be shaming if we’re not raised to understand how seeking help is human and foundational to connection,” writes author and researcher Brené Brown in her book Rising Strong. “But the truth is that no amount of money, influence, resources, or determination will change our physical, emotional, and spiritual dependence on others.”
None of us have all the answers and the strongest leaders are those who not only acknowledge this to themselves, but demonstrate it to others. As much as we may be seeking a single person to have all the answers and take care of everything, the reality is no one person can do this.
However, we live in a culture that presents it that way. Think about sports and how despite the need for total team effort, the media presents Payton Manning and the Denver Broncos or Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers. NBA match-ups are promoted as LeBron James and the Cavaliers versus Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors.
Taking nothing away from the leadership these talented athletes demonstrate, we discount and denigrate the efforts of those around them who contribute to victories. We give too much credit to the individual athletes when they succeed and lay on too much blame when they fail.
In the more serious arena of politics, this lack of humility and the leader’s inability to rely upon others can be much more troubling. When a leader claims he or she has all the answers, beware because this can mean a lack of self-awareness, extreme egotism, narcissism and will likely lead to destructive and even catastrophic decisions.
When Republican presidential front-running candidate Donald Trump was recently asked by host Mika Brzezinski on MSNBC’s “” who he would rely on for help with foreign policy, he said:
“I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain. I’ve said a lot of things … I speak to a lot of people, but my primary consultant is myself, and I have a good instinct for this stuff.”
Despite no experience in domestic or foreign policy, Trump is essentially saying we should take him on faith. He says he’s smart and he can figure it out. In this bizarre political season, vetting potential leaders of the free world should demand more than this.
In the corporate setting, those leading from a cool and professional distance are unable to make sound decisions because, like all of us, they have blind spots and areas where they are simply deficient. When these leaders refuse to ask for help they risk alienating their people and make bad decisions.
The difficulty with asking for help is because it is emotionally risky and may expose our uncertainty. This is, however, the exact vulnerability necessary for us to fully connect with others. Without the courage to risk opening up and being seen, there can be no connection.
Just the other day I spoke with a leader who described the most powerful and important day in his career. It was at an off-site where they were discussing the importance of trust. When it was brought up that there was a trust problem in the organization, he invited feedback as to whether he was someone who could be trusted. The answer came back negative.
Without becoming defensive, he asked for examples of why this was the case, and in front of the entire group he listened with an open mind and open heart. He invited follow up conversations with each of the individuals who spoke up in order to learn from them and to express his perspective. Later he came to find not only did these individual relationships improve, but so did trust, his satisfaction at work and his overall growth as a leader, culminating with a promotion.
The ability to courageously expose our vulnerability and ask for help is the very thing that builds our leadership capacity. Demonstrating humility that runs counter to the image we’re trying to live up to facilitates an important connection to those we want as followers.
Expecting leaders to be anything other than emotionally vulnerable and imperfect human beings is detrimental to our institutions and our very livelihood. Instead, let leaders risk exposing their ignorance in order to raise their competence and connection with those we want them to lead.