A couple of weeks back, I posted about Bill Gates and the video he made regarding his upcoming last day at Microsoft. I complimented Bill on his self-confidence and his willingness to have a laugh at his own expense. I also noted the importance of being able to laugh at ourselves as a sign of strong self-confidence.
Bill’s video and his willingness to show his flaws demonstrates another key aspect of leadership – selectively revealing weaknesses. This may seem like a rather minor leadership trait but one that has been shown to be important in leadership studies conducted by Victor Dulewicz and Malcolm Higgs.
You may remember my previous posts (1, 2 and 3) about Dulewicz and Higgs and their work with the Leadership Dimensions Questionnaire. They have shown that revealing weaknesses is a key aspect of effective leaders. It relates directly to the managerial competencies of Engaging Communications and the emotional intelligence competencies of Interpersonal Sensitivity and Self-Awareness.
This finding of Dulewicz and Higgs is based in part on the 2006 book, Why Should Anyone Be Led by You? , by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones. In their book, Goffee and Jones talk about the importance for leaders to communicate to their followers some form of personal weakness. Effective leaders show who they truly are, warts and all. This serves to make the leader more human and therefore more approachable and likable. It serves to establish trust and credibility with followers. The leader seems more authentic than they would if they were not revealing any weaknesses, and that is desired (or perhaps demanded) by followers.
"The desire to be led by a real person demands that we know something of a leader's human foibles and shortcomings."
- Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones
This runs counter to our natural inclination to build ourselves up and try to look our best. Goffee and Jones say that those leaders that don’t let themselves show any sign of weakness are either perceived as a phony or as someone that doesn’t take any risks.
What Bill Gates did in this video, and has done over his tenure as CEO and Chairman of Microsoft, is to show that he is fallible and human. It’s not that he isn’t brilliant or that he doesn’t take his work seriously. It is because he is able to show that he isn’t superhuman; he is a human like the rest of us.
Those leaders who are unwilling to reveal a weakness may find that their subordinates make one up for them. It’s like the celebrities and stars being followed around by the tabloids and papparazi; if they can’t find something to write about, they will fill in the blanks or make something up. Don’t leave your subordinates in the lurch; give them something.
Part of our communication challenge as project managers and leaders is to let people see the real us at work. We need to show them that we have weaknesses too. Here are some examples from various leaders in the public realm:
- As President, Bill Clinton revealed a weakness for junk food and women. He probably should have just stuck with the junk food.
- Ronal Reagan was also a very popular President despite his confessed lack of memory and details and his love of jelly beans.
A leader that I respect and admire is Bill Hybels, the senior pastor at my church. He has done a great job of sharing flaws that make him human without diminishing his leadership abilities. Here are some of the weaknesses he has shared:
- He says he is of Dutch origins and therefore very cheap
- He is a complete pushover for his new grandson
- He lacks artistic talent even though he frequently makes flip chart drawings during his talks
- He is not a "hugger"
As Bill has shown, the key is to reveal weaknesses that make you human without taking away from your leadership skills. It is similar to the challenge you face when you interview for a job and the interviewer asks about your weaknesses. This is not the time to share that you frequently “borrow” company supplies for personal use, that you sleep late and miss important meetings, or that you have a string of sexual harassment suits pending against you. This is the time to share some real but not lethal weakness.
Goffee and Jones say to never expose a weakness that would be seen as a fatal flaw. In other words, it needs to be a real weakness but just the right weakness.
"Knowing which weakness to reveal, and when, is often a highly honed art closely linked to the ability to sense the requirements of different situations."
- Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones
This is time to share something that is an understandable weakness and one that is tangential to your work efforts. As a project manager, you would not want to say that you are disorganized or that you have poor people skills. If you are in IT, you would not want to share that you are not good with technology.
Here are some weaknesses that I have heard people share:
- They are uncomfortable speaking in front of large groups (unless you are a speaker or trainer)
- They sometimes get so involved in the details that they lose track of time
- They collect porcelain pigs
- They can not remember people’s names
- That they are scared of heights or hate to fly in airplanes
One more caution about these flaws; the flaw must be real and genuine, otherwise the leader will be perceived as inconsistent or dishonest. For example, I once saw a senior executive in an organization who broke into tears during an emotional discussion. His employees viewed his tears as manipulative and didn’t trust him.
My challenge to you is to determine if you are trying to be too perfect. Are you showing your weaknesses to your followers or trying to be a super-project manager? Let me know what you think.
If you didn't see Bill's video about his last day, here is the link.