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 their company grows and functions more like a business, they might fall into the trap of trying to manage their image.
Flying in like the superhero is seductive to leaders but perfection doesn’t exist in the ranks of humanity. One business owner (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 members of his team to distrust him by leaving them out.
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 bulletproof competence. Of course, competence isn’t a bad thing, but a hyper-focus suggests a trade-off. There's no need 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 (that is, humanness), you release your team from the fear of not meeting your expectations and being criticized. Those are things that block innovation and collaboration. Here are five tips to help set you on your path:
1. 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?”
2. Share lessons learned. Admit mistakes.
People are drawn to leaders who are not only very smart but have the confidence to kick back and laugh at their mistakes. We like and trust individuals who are personable and regular folks. 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.
3. Leave room for others to be right.
Watch out for the destructive practice of making people be wrong. Even if their ideas are not the way to go, acknowledge their contributions. When teammates have the opportunity to be right, they will demonstrate 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.
4. Demand feedback. Welcome challenge.
Let members of 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?” or “What am I missing on my end?” People trust and engage with leaders who are not threatened by those who speak their mind to offer value.
5. Change your mind.
The confident leader understands it's 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 for 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. Every person is needed, all working together to reinvent the company while keeping up with current customer demands.
People respond to the real person behind the title, the human being with imperfections, passions, doubts, strengths and weaknesses. Employees will only trust you to the extent that they know you. No one is perfect, tireless and without fault or reproach. So, pursuing perfection means you will remain unknowable and a leader without real influence.