The Myths and Facts Behind Perfect Leaders and Why Vulnerability is Important
Updated: Feb 3
Myth: Leaders are perfect people.
Fact: Leaders are human, therefore imperfect people.
Yet, there are people who believe being a leader equates to being perfect. To show any cracks in that facade would be to show weakness. Some believe it’s a sign of a poor leader.
People in positions of leadership who believe they are supposed to be perfect will move through life sculpting this perfect persona they want others to see. They constantly worry about what other people think. Their decisions are centered on how it will make them look. They hide their imperfections and refuse to admit when they don’t know something. And they’ll never own up to being wrong, at least not without being passive-aggressive or sarcastic about it.
I’m certainly not painting a picture of someone people would want to follow. But they exist. You’ve probably worked for or with someone like that.
I Bought into the Myth of Perfect Leaders
I once looked at people in positions of leadership as perfect beings. Without considering the human side of these leaders, I assumed they knew everything there was to know about anything. Otherwise, how else would they have made it as far in their careers as they did? They couldn’t be leaders unless they were exemplary examples of excellence.
I thought successful leaders were the kinds of people who read the newspaper every morning before going to work, worked out regularly, ate only healthy foods and slept eight hours every night. They never had a disagreement with their spouse and their children were well-behaved honor students. And they made a thousand great decisions a day at work and everyone loved them for it.
Clearly, such people led flawless lives and had never once experienced adversity.
I know if any of the leaders I worked for read this today, they would laugh and tell me they were far from perfect. Well, the self-aware ones, at least.
I have no idea why I had created this version of the leaders I worked for. It wasn’t reality. Leaders are people, and people are human. We all make mistakes. We all have things in our lives that we find challenging.
We’re not perfect.
But I bought into this myth and thought I had to be perfect in order to be a leader. And unfortunately, I was flawed. Therefore, I would never be a leader.
All Leaders Have Struggled at Some Point in Their Lives
President Theodore Roosevelt had severe asthma as a child. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had a stutter. Senator Tammy Duckworth lost both of her legs during the Iraq War. These were physical conditions visible to others.
But there are countless leaders who have, at some point in their lives, dealt with problems less visible to others. They struggled with learning a new job. They lived the frustration and turmoil of working for a tough boss. They experienced the hurt and disappointment of not getting accepted into a prestigious program or job they applied for. They made regrettable mistakes in life. They know how challenging a rough divorce can be. They tackled the emotional tolls of taking care of a terminally ill family member. They fought the internal battles of low-confidence, anxiety and depression.
Most people tend to keep these problems to themselves, especially when they’re in positions of leadership.
Hence, the idea of perfection I bought into.
Fortunately, the cultural stigma preventing people from talking openly about their problems has decreased a bit. There’s no rule that a leader can’t talk about their problems, yet it still seems as if doing so makes them weak and therefore, less of a leader.
This is all a part of experiencing life. It’s part of being human. Admitting you’re a human and that you experience human emotions and challenges doesn’t make you less of a leader.
It’s Difficult to be Vulnerable
David Dotlich states in his article, Adversity: What Makes a Leader the Most,
“When we think of business careers, we assume that great leaders develop and rise to the top in a hierarchical progression. Modern organizational life exists to celebrate success and deny failure – no one ever notes a significant setback or mistake on their résumé. But the fact is, successful careers are not successful continuously. There are ups and downs, twists and turns, detours and digressions, some triggered by professional events and some by personal ones. And even though it may be embarrassing or painful to discuss how they stumbled, an overwhelming majority of leaders privately admit that that’s when they learned the most.”
If that’s when leaders learn the most, why not discuss how they stumbled?
The reason is because it is difficult to be vulnerable.
Sometimes it’s culturally and socially unacceptable to show the real versions of ourselves. Or we want to create an image or brand where only the non-vulnerable version of ourselves is shown. And frankly, we just care too much about what others think of us.
Brené Brown, who has written extensively on leading with vulnerability, explains in her book The Gifts of Imperfection that being vulnerable is uncomfortable, and no one likes to be uncomfortable. She also describes why we care so much about what others think: because we want to fit in and be liked.
It would be easy for me to tell you to let it go, but I know better. The only way to get past this is to practice being vulnerable. According to Brown, “Authenticity is not something we have or don’t have. It’s a practice - a conscious choice of how we want to live…It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”
Why Should Leaders be Vulnerable?
How would you view a leader who was comfortable with being vulnerable? Would you gain or lose respect for this person?
According to a survey by Catlyst, people are more willing to work for a leader who is comfortable being vulnerable. There’s a greater sense of trust and connection.
Why? Because we connect with people who have real emotions, errors and experiences.
No one looks at perfection and says, “That resonates with me.” (I mean, maybe someone will, but they’re likely joking or full of themselves.)
Because I looked at my leaders as perfect beings, I didn’t really connect with them. I put them on a pedestal and convinced myself I would never be as good as them. And therefore, I was not cut out to achieve success.
No one gave me a reason to think otherwise.
It was years before I realized that leaders can have their flaws and still be successful.
Leaders who are vulnerable and willing to discuss their emotions, errors and life experiences have the ability to teach others what they have learned when they sharing their stories.
Be Willing to Embrace Vulnerability
I encourage leaders to make it a habit to show their vulnerabilities. It takes self-awareness to know your areas of weaknesses, but it takes vulnerability to share them.
We all learn something when we are able to accept our weaknesses and find ways to improve, overcome or move past these things that hold us back. When you, as a leader, can share those lessons learned, someone else gets to benefit from it.
Yes, it will be uncomfortable to be vulnerable, so practice. There’s definitely an art to this, and I will go into this in more detail in a later post.
But for now, think about ways you can open up and be more vulnerable. It can make you a more effective leader and inspire someone else to follow in your footsteps.