Saturday, September 19, 2009

Leaders Look Bad

Real leaders are ethical. And they are human, which means they screw up often. By combining ethics and fallibility, leaders have the courage to look bad.

Often because of pride and ego, individuals in leadership positions would rather look good, so they hide financial losses, avoid acknowledging personal shortcomings, cover up major flaws in their business plan or tell everyone "everything is fine" when it isn't.

Being honest and straightforward even when doing so reveals your own inadequacy in managing is a hallmark of leadership. Nevertheless, we have a tendency to rationalize: "If I admit I don't know what I'm doing, and I'm supposed to be the leader here, I'll lose the confidence and respect of those I'm leading." Or perhaps the story we tell ourselves is: "I can work this through. No sense in getting everyone else worried about it. If I can find the solution, no one needs to know what's been going on."

Ironically, in both examples above, the opposite is true. In the first example, if you are willing to be vulnerable and admit you don't have all the answers, you gain others' confidence and respect. If you act as though you know what you're doing, but it becomes apparent you do not, that's when others doubt your leadership.

In the second example, you need help. Many of us are afraid to ask for help, particularly from subordinates, because we view it as a sign of weakness. Having the courage to ask for help in solving a major management crisis will actually engage others in the cause. Most people want to help and are honored that you would consider asking them for it.

I had a friend who spent time in jail because he was afraid to admit his business finances were spinning out of control. He would not inform his investors that his cash situation was a house of cards that could topple at any minute. He said he kept thinking, "I can figure a way out of this and they'll never have to know." He assured everyone "everything is fine." Well, the wind blew and the cards came down. He was convicted of fraud.

He explained that had he simply told the truth to the investors early on, admitting things were going badly, he might have been able to enlist their help -- and he certainly wouldn't have been convicted of fraud. He may or may not have avoided a lawsuit had he been honest, but having the courage to "look bad" would no doubt have kept him out of jail. The desire to look good cost him his reputation and his career.

Being vulnerable, laying ourselves open, and admitting we don't have all the answers takes more courage than trying to put on a confident, sunny facade. In the long run, the facade generally falls and we end up looking bad anyway. Only this time looking bad isn't a sign of leadership.


  1. Great article. Ego is the absolute killer of good leadership. I have had several bosses and almost every time they will never admit that they made a mistake or don't know what to do. However, I've admitted I didn't know how to do things and such a people thought I was unqualified for my job. It's a very sticky situation, but I very happy that people are talking about it.

  2. Great comments, John. You're right that it is sticky and there is risk in showing vulnerability.

  3. Excellent Article. I have come across bosses who Say 'Its My way or No Way' eventually things going wrong. Its better to acknowledge shortfalls and working through them rather avoiding them.