Authentic leadership requires that we honestly evaluate our own abilities and identify our strengths and weaknesses. No one is strong in all areas and that becomes even more true as leaders rise to more responsible positions.
Recently, I was having a business discussion with a friend and the subject turned to marketing. I mentioned that I did not enjoy the marketing piece of business and that I wasn’t really good at it. I explained that marketing had become quite complex and I felt I needed help from an expert. My friend told me I should not be negative and that if I used more positive language I would find I could become better at marketing.
The concept of success through positive thought isn’t new. From Dr. Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, published in 1952, to current emphasis on Neuro-Linguistic Programing, there is no shortage of sources claiming that by simply using positive language and thought, problems will melt away.
While I agree that positive thought is certainly better than negative thought, I also firmly believe that honesty with yourself and your team is critical. One of the most important tasks for leaders is to understand their own strengths and weaknesses. Part of that task is evaluating those weaknesses and deciding what action to take.
This is the key point of authentic leadership. A leader must know and accept their own strengths and weaknesses. That doesn’t mean wallowing in self-pity. Instead, authentic leadership means evaluating weaknesses, then deciding whether to improve your own ability or find someone for whom that area is a strength. Leaders who try to hide their weaknesses or pretend they know everything and can do anything are quickly found out by their team and their effectiveness diminishes.
Let me give you an example.
In the Air Force I was assigned to lead a large, complex organization. While I understood the basics, I was far from an expert in the various technical aspects of the organization’s mission. That meant I had two choices. I could “fake it” and pretend to have the expertise in those technical aspects, or I could admit that I didn’t have that expertise.
The first option would mean acting as though I really knew more than I did. No amount of positive self-talk or bluster would have made me an expert or convinced my organization that I was. In fact, it would have taken the real experts very little time to see the truth, after which my effectiveness as a leader would be severely compromised.
The second option would mean making myself vulnerable to the organization and potentially diminishing my effectiveness as a leader. This is the avenue I chose. But, this doesn’t mean I just shrugged my shoulders and said, “I’m not good at this.” Instead, I sat down with my leadership team, owned up to my weakness, and explained I would need their help while I filled in my knowledge gaps so I could better support them.
That organization went on to some amazing accomplishments under some difficult conditions. As the organization’s leader, I didn’t need to be the expert. Instead, I needed to support those who were the experts.
Positive thinking is powerful and leaders should strive to remain positive. But, authentic leadership also means being honest with yourself and your team.