Leading By Letting People in on Your Weaknesses

Over the last 40 years, I’ve held numerous positions—from executive director to chairs of boards—in which I’ve had the challenging and sometimes daunting task of leading other people. Although I had to learn it the hard way, by making the same mistakes over and over, I finally discovered one of the less recognized keys to being an effective leader. It is crucial to let people in on your weakness, forewarn them about your bad habits, invite them to call you on those failings, and take steps to counteract the negative effects you’re unintentionally producing.One of my most damaging faults is that I’m a chronic interrupter. I was raised in a family of New York Jews where interrupting was the only way you could get your two cents in during lively discussions. I’ll never forget my father silencing my Uncle Phil by in a dinnertime debate by asserting, “But I interrupted first!”wlc3_0For a long time I was blind to the fact that many people see interrupting as a sign of disrespect. Instead of interrupting back, which is what I expected, they withdrew and, often, shut down. When I became aware of the fact that I was insulting and suppressing people by my constant interruptions (alerted to this by some candid friends), I worked hard to restrain myself. But it was such a habitual way of being that I often failed. So I learned to let people know that I had this bad pattern of interrupting, and I asked them to call me on it when they saw me slipping into this tendency. Since then, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “Let me finish,” and have willingly assented so that people have the space to have their say.I’ve another shortcoming that’s had bruising consequences. I sound so certain, so sure of myself, that other people think there’s no room for dissent or even debate. Once again, frank observations by some bold colleagues helped me to see that my assertive style and definitive tone were intimidating people, stifling their self expression, and making them feel that I was closed to any point of view but my own. This was dismaying news because my intention—my commitment—was to create an open and inclusive environment, yet my manner was unwittingly having the opposite effect. I learned that I needed to tell people not to be fooled or stopped by my over-confident style and to assure them that I’m actually quite open-minded, flexible, and never as certain as I seem to be.For a time, I really agonized about the way my style was affecting people, but then I ran across some research that put people’s reactions to me in a somewhat less troubling light. A Stanford Business School professor gave half of his students a case study of a female CEO. He gave the other half of his students the same case study, but changed the sex of the CEO to male. Although the students thought the female CEO was competent and effective, they disliked her “aggressive personality.” Moreover, the more assertive they thought she was, the more harshly they judged her, while the same was not true for those who rated the male.I realized that some of the negative reaction to my forceful style is at least in part because I’m a women. If I were a man, I’d probably be described as dynamic and powerful. But as a woman, I’m often tagged as pushy and bossy.So I’ve stopped holding back and allow myself to express my power. However,  I recognize that my assertive, I-have-the answer way of speaking can have a dampening effect on people, so I try to be careful to explicitly let people know that I truly welcome divergent perspectives, opinions, and ideas, even if my authoritative tone suggests otherwise.My willingness to acknowledge my faults has helped to make me a more effective leader in another way. Because of the example I’ve set, the people I’ve led have told me, they’ve been more disposed to owning up to their weaknesses, admitting their failures, and embracing deserved criticism. Both they and I have thrived in this atmosphere of openness, self-learning, and authenticity.