Why Leaders Must Create a Culture Where It’s Safe to Air Insecurities, Make Mistakes, and Admit Failure

One of the most important things a leader can do is create a culture in which it’s safe to express doubts and fears, make mistakes, and admit failure.  Such a culture yields four powerful rewards.

  • It encourages people to acknowledge rather than hide their vulnerabilities and allows them to see that they’re not alone — that their peers and even their supervisors  struggle with the same insecurities.
  • It spurs people to seek help when they need it, rather than soldier on alone, and creates an environment in which people bond with and support one another.
  • It inspires people to step out of their comfort zone, take risks, reach for new heights, and attempt things even though they’re not sure they’ll succeed.
  • It fosters learning and growth by turning mistakes and failures into teachable moments.

An opinion piece last week in The New York Times about the culture of “machismo that pervades medicine” shows how destructive the consequences can be when leaders don’t create an open, nurturing environment.Gathering-of-Women-ArtThe piece, written by a young doctor, begins by relating that, two weeks earlier, two medical residents in New York City had jumped to their deaths. He then highlights the staggering and frightening statistics on suicide by doctors.  Physicians are more than twice as likely to commit suicide than non-physicians, and women doctors are more than three times likely to commit suicide than their male counterparts.He attributes this to a culture in medicine that makes doctors, especially fledgling doctors like him, “feel pressure to project intellectual, emotional and physical prowess beyond what we truly possess. We masquerade as strong and untroubled professionals even in our darkest and most self-doubting moments.”  Because they cannot voice their doubts and fears, doctors often feel isolated and alone, don’t find comfort from one another, and can be pushed “beyond their reserves of emotional resilience.”The author advocates for a medical culture that stresses openness about vulnerabilities and fosters connection.  A Professor of Psychiatry, in a letter  to the editor of The Times, takes this one step further: “We who are the supervisors and mentors of these young doctors must set an example. We, too, need to share our insecurities — old and new — and unmask our humanity.”I was the executive director of an organization for 20 years and what my staff said they most valued about my leadership was my openness about my own doubts, fears, and mistakes and my commitment to making it safe for them to be open about theirsOur job was to provide management consulting assistance to social justice organizations.  That typically involved calling for change, dealing with conflict, and tackling other thorny organizational problems.  We were often put into the position of telling people things they didn’t want to hear, and their response frequently was to attack the message by attacking the messenger.  Without the support and reinforcement we gave to each other, we couldn’t have done this work.We had staff meetings once a month and one of our standing agenda items was “problem clients. ”  This was an opportunity for  our consulting staff to talk about any clients they were struggling with, express their concerns, and get insights, fresh perspectives, help, and solace from the group.  Not only did we all learn how to be more effective from these discussions, but we bonded closely with one another and emerged from each discussion with a stronger sense of community.  We also collectively analyzed the ingredients of our successes and the missteps that led to our failures.  We usually discovered more from dissecting why an engagement hadn’t worked than from looking at why it had gone right.My staff also knew that I’d set aside whatever I was doing and make time for them whenever they needed to vent their frustrations, air their insecurities, get advice, or simply find comfort in an understanding ear.  Each one of them was incredibly effective at strengthening the organizations who came to us for help, and I think a lot of that was due to the extraordinarily nurturing learning environment that I and they created.Back in February, I wrote a blog about a related topic — my discovery that one of the less recognized keys to being an effective leader is letting  people in on your weakness, forewarning them about your bad habits, inviting them to call you on those failings, and taking steps to counteract the negative effects you’re unintentionally producing.  This, too, cultivated a culture of openness, authenticity, and self-growth.