There’s an old Gillette razor commercial with famous personalities of the day encouraging us to “Never let them see you sweat.” The premise was that successful people never let it appear that anything bothers them. The phrase has become part of our vocabulary and is often applied to leadership as well. But is it good advice?
As a commander in the Air Force there were several times when my squadrons saw me sweat. In one case, I had just completed a memorial service for a senior enlisted member who had died shortly before retirement. When a military member dies, there are many tasks that must be completed and the commander is responsible for most of them. It is emotionally challenging and by the end of the memorial service, which the commander traditionally leads, I was pretty well drained. After that service, I was speaking with my squadron’s senior non-commissioned officer and mentioned that I was not keeping a very good detached demeanor. I definitely had “Let them see me sweat.” He said that was good. The squadron didn’t see me as less of a leader, rather they saw that I was human and cared about the team, but also continued to accomplish my leadership responsibilities.
Leaders are human and diminish their effectiveness when they try to be detached and emotionless. It’s okay if your team sees that you’re tired sometimes, or upset. At the same time though, they must also see that you don’t let those feelings stop you from being the leader.
That doesn’t mean the leader should be wishy washy and fail to make decisions. That will destroy your team’s effectiveness and your credibility. When a decision has to be made, you must put all those feelings aside and act based on your own values, the information available, and the good of the mission and the team.
Of course there are times when it’s best to keep your problems to yourself and not “let them see you sweat.” I once had a boss who blamed my team for the mechanical failure of a very old piece of equipment. My boss and I had a tenuous relationship to begin with and my vigorous defense of my team made it even worse. I didn’t realize until years later when I was speaking to a former team member that our relationship had become something of a public feud and rumors had been swirling around the organization that my boss and I had come to blows over the issue. Nothing of the sort, but it was a great illustration of how not to deal with that kind of conflict. Allowing my personal conflict to become so visible to the team was a mistake.
You’re human and it’s okay to let your team see you sweat. Just make sure you also let them see that whatever is causing your discomfort doesn’t stop you from being an effective leader. Acting like there’s no problem is not as effective as recognizing and clearly addressing the problem.