Great Leaders Are Not PerfectNovember 5, 2015
It’s not unusual for executives enter a new job with deep-seated feelings of being an impostor. Our research studying thousands of leaders rising into bigger jobs revealed 69% feel underprepared for roles they assume. Forty-five percent had minimal understanding of the challenges they would face, and 76% said their organizations were not helpful in getting them ready. Fearing exposure as a fraud, many leaders overcompensate with extreme attempts at flawlessness. There are three common, but mistaken, beliefs they share:
“I have to be perfect.”
Many driven executives struggle to accept that flaws and mistakes are part of being human. And when you act is if you are, or should be, perfect, you eventually expect it of others as well. The followers on whom those unfair standards are imposed typically revolt and withdraw their support. Starved for acknowledgement, such followers wait to pounce on any hint of (hypocritical) deficiency, leaving no room for executive missteps. Executives, fearing criticism and exposure, work to perpetuate the illusion of infallibility — and perfectionism becomes a self-perpetuating prison. Sixty-seven percent of our respondents also struggled with micromanagement, a common symptom of managerial perfectionism.
Followers need assurance that leaders know they themselves are flawed, and will in turn be understanding of other people’s slip-ups. Leaders should be up front about what followers can expect about their strengths and foibles. They must welcome feedback, encouraging candor when their weakness becomes problematic for others and apologizing early and often when they make mistakes. A leader’s greatest source of credibility is, ironically, their vulnerability. Owning imperfections wins trust; hiding them doesn’t.
“I have to be 100% fair.”
When it comes to resource allocation – from compensation and promotions to strategic priorities – leaders are scrutinized for “fairness” in unfair ways. Many employees expect to get overlooked when it comes to performance evaluations, promotions, pay, and access to resources and opportunities. A fragile economy and colossal gap between executive and worker wages continue to fuel distrust. Organizational injustice is in the eye of the beholder, and sometimes those that play the “that’s not fair” card lack facts. It’s easy for leaders suffering from impostor syndrome to worry too much about placating these people.
While people want to be treated equally, not all jobs are equal; not every contribution holds equal value. Instead of trying to treat everyone the same, be clear that disproportionate performance and results get disproportionate rewards, resources, and opportunities. When executives try to neutralize these differences by creating the false appearance of egalitarian polices that “treat everyone the same,” they provoke the very anxieties they sought to allay because people instinctively know that everyone is not the same.
Followers want to know the rules, and know leaders care when the rules are broken. If employees understand the standards, and how rewards will be distributed, they will believe there is no capriciousness beneath those choices. They want to know leaders have their backs, despite the realities of organizational injustice. One executive we worked with, thinking he was showing empathy, said to an employee, “I know our bonus structure is messed up, but there’s nothing I can do.” Making himself a co-victim reduced his credibility as he advertised feeling powerless to advocate for change.
“I have to be accessible 24/7.”
Leaders never feel they have enough time to give, and followers don’t feel they get enough. Two-thirds of our respondents claimed they had insufficient time to offer those they lead. The challenge is how to negotiate with each follower what they need and how to provide it. Don’t let militant gatekeepers prevent access to you, but don’t offer unlimited access either — don’t become everyone’s answer ATM. Set clear boundaries and enforce the need to work within them. Maximize the impact of your time with creative processes that help the whole team have shared access, rather than relying too many one-on-one conversations.
Followers really want reliability. They need to know that if they have problems, leaders will help find solutions. If there’s something they can’t make sense of, leaders will offer perspective. If they can’t get an adjacent department to cooperate, their leader will run interference. While the amount of time spent doing these things will vary, it’s only when followers conclude leaders aren’t reliable that the amount of time they get with them becomes an issue.
The executive stage is a high-wire act. Anchoring yourself with transparent principles can help you weather the harsh blows dealt by the discontented. Satisfy your team’s real needs, and don’t worry about contorting yourself into what you can never be.
Ron Carucci is co-founder and managing partner at Navalent, working with CEOs and executives pursuing transformational change for their organizations, leaders, and industries. He is the best-selling author of eight books, including the recent Amazon #1 Rising to Power. Connect with him on Twitter at @RonCarucci.