Why being human might be the ultimate form of leadership
A late afternoon of what now seems several lives ago, I found myself moderating a technical meeting with the team members I was supposed to be leading. I have been put in charge of the flagship project of the company I used to work for, at an age so early I didn’t know yet the world wasn’t flat. I was supposed to lead a discussion to select one of two development frameworks to use on the project, having no form of authority over a group of engineers that were more experienced, accomplished, and smarter than me. The memory is blurry now, but searching for the story brings back all the raw emotions. After the dust settled, and I’ve made the decision, I left the office upset, disappointed at myself, and with a deep feeling of inadequacy. What just happened?
First and foremost, I was still in that stage of your career where you think you are put in charge because you are better than those around you. How wrong we can be! Second, we had two very senior engineers behind each of the home-brew frameworks, and I didn’t have the skill nor the seniority to moderate a heated discussion that (now I know) had nothing to do with technology. Last, but not least, the topic at hand: for me, this was the chance to prove I was worthy of my role. It wasn’t pretty: every time I’d make a statement, I would simply not back out of it. I would crush anyone that would challenge me in the most dreadful way. I was loud and aggressive. What a sight! For the casual observer, I was dominant, assertive. What was going on inside me was completely different…
See, when it comes to your career, growth means more responsibility. You are given more responsibility because you are right most of the time: right about technology choices, right about the architecture, about the coding guidelines. Moreover, when you are also the one that tends to organize folks when they seem stuck, coordinate efforts, make decisions, and create clarity out of chaos you’ll find yourself in a manager role sooner or later.
The pattern then was: be right, get rewarded. It is no different once you become a leader. And the more right you are, the bigger the problems you’ll get to tackle. Now, if you work hard (and you get lucky), you might put yourself in a position where the game is not about being right anymore. The challenge will be so big that you’ll need to rely on others being right to get things done. And if you do your job right, you’ll get to lead a team of people that are so good, they’ll make you feel inadequate.
Now to not only get there but stay there, you need to shift your focus from being right to getting it right. See the difference? Being right is all about me and my solution. It’s all about being better, being stronger. Getting it right is about letting go of our egos, feeling comfortable not knowing, allowing ourselves to learn from the people that report to us. So we make sure we succeed as a team versus indulging ourselves in feeling the smartest in the room.
To make this happen, to shift your focus away from what made you successful in the first place, you’ll need to embrace who you are and accept what you’re not. You need to dig deep inside and face the truth. You have to push yourself to answer the tough questions: “What do I bring to the table? What makes me unique as a leader? What value do I give to my team members?”
At different stages in your career, you’ll find different answers to these questions. But what you’ll always find is that for every one thing you uniquely contribute, there will be a lot of others you simply don’t. And when you can harness the strength to show up as you are (the good, the bad, the ugly), to openly share your struggle, to be vulnerable enough that can hurt, only then you’ll be able to develop to your fullest as a leader.
I know how counter-intuitive the notions of power and vulnerability sound in the same context. It makes sense though, believe me. We are evolutionarily hardwired to either fight or flight when we feel threatened or attacked. I get it, if you are an MMA fighter and find yourself inside a metal cage; vulnerability is likely not your best bet. But when the environment is your team, and the fight is the challenge ahead, allowing yourself to be vulnerable might just be the thing that makes or breaks your leadership.
Take giving feedback for example. Nothing makes team members more receptive, open to exploring growth opportunities, and likely to take your feedback as such (and not as “You screwed up”) than showing your humanity first. Sharing your own story of struggle, your setbacks; how you feel when you receive feedback about yourself, and how you react to it. Don’t forget that in the end, there’s nothing different between you and the people that report to you: you are two human beings with a circumstantial reporting relationship. Show vulnerability; you might be gifted receptivity.
Take a big challenge now. You are unsure what the solution is, you might not even know where to start, but you need to navigate your team not only to find a path but the best path. When you need to get the best answers on the table, you need to create an environment where it’s safe to make a fool of yourself. Think about it, if people around the table are focused on posturing, on how smart or dumb they look, the best idea might never see the daylight because the engineers that are thinking about it are more worried about making a fool of themselves than actually solving the task at hand. And that’s on you. If you never allow to be called on your mistakes. If you react defensively to criticism. If you just can’t handle being wrong, your team will behave just the same way. And you’ll all lose. Role model vulnerability; you might get the best out of your team.
Now, what about the five-minute decision you wanted to run by your team turned full-blown battle that eats up your entire forty-five-minute meeting? Just as the two engineers on my first-time leader story, you need to realize that, for the most part, these arguments have nothing to do with the subject being discussed. What looks like an architectural argument, a scalability issue, or a budget problem, it’s usually the manifestation of some form of fear: fear of losing the job, fear of not being smart enough, fear of someone else’s ability to execute. One more time, we are not wired to openly share our fears, particularly when we feel it’s unsafe to do so. This hidden roadblock is on you too. You need to take the lead. Understand where your team members are coming from, articulate their fears (make them yours if you want to), call a spade a spade so you can deal with root causes and not the symptoms caused by (likely unfounded) fears. Push your team to display vulnerability; you might get speed of execution in return.
What about influencing others? Although not easy, I can convince you to embrace vulnerability within your chain of command. But would you dare to do the same when you need to influence other teams, other departments? It’s easier to behave like a bully when it comes to getting others to change their course and go your way, especially when the truth is on your side. After all, we are still struggling with “being right,” remember? When you are not able to lead with your own flaws, you are never going to get others to assume theirs and change course happily. When you’re working across the boundaries of your own teams, creating an environment that allows people to focus on getting it right versus being right is what makes or breaks a culture.
I do have a piece of bad news. Embracing vulnerability never gets easier. Whether we like it or not, we are not designed to showcase it, to be proud of it. Insecurity creeps in unannounced, and before you noticed, the adrenaline’s in your blood, and it’s a matter of fight or flight. I’ve been in leadership roles for over 13 years, and till this day, I have to fight my ego, my fears, the chips on my shoulder. So the minute I see it coming, the second I realize I’m defensive, that the discussion I’m having has nothing to do with the topic at hand, I embrace vulnerability. I call the lie out loud; I share what I’m afraid of; I try and articulate why, and enlist my team to push us through. The result is, consistently, beautiful. The outcome is actually better than if I had come up with the right answer myself and caters to my ego even more: nothing makes me more proud than seeing a group of empowered leaders coming together to achieve something that’s bigger than any one of them.
So here’s a question for you: what type of leader you aspire to be? When I hear you say “I want to hire people smarter than me.” Do you mean it? Are you prioritizing being right or getting it right? Is this about you or about what you build, what you leave behind?
Have the courage to be vulnerable; you might be given the gift of legacy.