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James Bailey Ph.D.
James Bailey Ph.D.

How Acting Perfect Undermines Your Ability to Lead

Leaders: learn to embrace your shortcomings.

It’s human nature to want to be the superhero that saves the day, the invulnerable, go-to trailblazer who is free of weakness and faults to lead the company out of crisis or effectively manage employees during difficult times.

But seeking perfection can backfire, and I would argue it should. We all have weaknesses, and they’re daily on display to those around us. While your instinct may be to hide your liabilities, good leaders are skillful at revealing flaws without becoming confessional.

"Facepalm in a Frame"/KHarold/CC BY-SA 4.0
Source: "Facepalm in a Frame"/KHarold/CC BY-SA 4.0

I believe that weakness doesn’t have to limit leaders. In fact, it can distinguish them. Tactical disclosures about personal flaws can stimulate empathy and inspire achievement within teams, no matter whether the weakness is emotional, physical or mental.

Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Group, was remarkably open about his dyslexia from very early in his career. It became an opportunity for connection and for trust with his colleagues and investors. In fact, he would argue that being different and talking honestly about it has been an advantage in his corporate life.

“If you have a learning disability, you become a very good delegator,” Branson told Bloomberg West. “Because you know what your weaknesses are and you know what your strengths are, and you make sure that you find great people to step in and deal with your weaknesses.”

Admittedly, it can be risky to emphasize your weaknesses. None of us are immune from feeling the pangs of shame, fear, and insecurity. And leaders seem to risk even more because they have so much further to fall, of course.

Consider this: It is very likely that your colleagues already know your weaknesses, having worked with you for months, years or decades. If you don’t admit them, your colleagues might think you obtuse with no self-awareness, or you’re a fraud who is trying to deceive them. Neither one is a good platform for a strong leader.

Sharing weaknesses can strengthen your position in any leadership paradigm. Frailties make you human. As a society, we like to know our leaders are just like us and able to overcome their personal failings to lead. It is an aspirational vision. A little bit of imperfection, however, can go a long way, and no one is interested in being led by someone whose weaknesses turn from a few into many.

"Fear of the White Page"/Erik Pevernagie/CC ASA 3.0
Source: "Fear of the White Page"/Erik Pevernagie/CC ASA 3.0

Paul Orfalea, the founder of Kinko’s, says his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) was integral to his success as an entrepreneur and has allowed him to quickly recognize and capitalize on opportunities. His frankness about his ADHD has been incorporated into his management strategy.

“I can’t write a letter and I can’t fix a machine,” said Orfalea, in an interview with the online journal ADDitude. “My biggest advantage is that I don’t get bogged down in the details because of my ADHD. I hire capable people to handle that.”

In that sense, your weaknesses can become an advantage for your colleagues and employees, too. The leader who recognizes his or her flaws is able to transcend them with the assistance of others. As Branson has said, he liked to hire people who could fill in his gaps. It’s a reliable formula and can be applied to the most personal of failings.

Learning to embrace your imperfections and discussing them publicly may be counterintuitive in a world where might is right. It also may go against your nature. But I believe your weaknesses make you human and relatable, and they can and will distinguish you as a leader.

About the Author
James Bailey Ph.D.

James R. Bailey, Ph.D., is a Professor of Leadership at the George Washington University School of Business.

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