Over the weekend I received word that my cousin, who is 1 year younger than me, was in the ICU and would likely not make it. After taking care of my younger sister who was assisting the rest of my family with details and logistics (I am the oldest, taking care of my younger siblings is pre-disposed, and dinner will be delivered promptly at 5pm so she doesn’t have to think about it), I offered to call my father to let him know what was going on. My parents divorced when I was 31, and I have spoken to my dad a handful of times in the last 6+ years. There are various reasons for our estrangement which individually are not important to the theme of this blog. What is relevant, is knowing how uncomfortable it was to make that call. He answered as if I were a stranger, I gave him devastating news about his nephew (he had no idea), and I ended the call with asking if he was ok and telling him I loved him. I faced my fear of whatever was going to come my way from this incidental reach out because it was the right thing to do.
Humbling myself to make this call as the informal leader of my two younger sisters was hard. Which got me to thinking about how important being humble is as a leader, and how it is even more important to allow those you lead to see you in this space. So often we avoid the temporary discomfort of being wrong, or conceding in some way to override our own judgement of what is actually the right thing to do. Leaders will hang on so desperately to something they know isn’t the best for an organization all in an effort to save face or avoid the humiliation of a poor decision. I have seen this happen where a group of leaders holds on so tightly to an antiquated way of thinking, they refuse any other ideas. Literally “my way or the highway,” even if that way will run us off a cliff in the near future.
Humility and vulnerability are seen as weaknesses. They are rarely recognized as the cornerstones which contribute to a substantial foundation on which all viewpoints are valued in an organization. Exhibiting these attributes as a leader creates a safe place for ideas to be shared from ALL stakeholders. They level the playing field. No single offering is worth more than another, across ranks and positions. As long as people can provide feedback openly, without fear of being belittled for less than enlightened thoughts, the best ideas are allowed to shine through. No egos, no top down decisions – straight progress. This can also help disburse the blame if a choice ends up being sub-optimal, likewise the celebrations are shared when things go well. Safety and/or accolades for all!
It is hard to admit when you are wrong, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. Not only should we admit when we are wrong even though it is hard, but we should do it openly, and learn to laugh at ourselves when we fall short. Adam Grant talks about this in his new book “Think Again.” He stresses the importance of working through the temporary discomfort of failing and learning to find joy in your mistakes. You’re learning! He notes several tales of when people do this right and wrong in this book. It is an excellent read, or listen (he narrates this one himself). I highly recommend it.
As leaders, admitting when we are wrong and exhibiting this behavior to those we lead and influence, both personally and professionally, is a more honest and productive way to be. It allows us to approach problems head on and deal with them constructively and comprehensively. Since we aren’t trying to constantly cover up a mistake to save our image or ego, we are open to numerous viewpoints and ideas which might enrich our environment in new ways. Promoting vulnerability and humility can help us learn from our mistakes, creates a psychologically safe space for a wide range of idea sharing, and paves a way to doing the next right thing. I encourage all leaders to foster this practice in our organizations to create a more stable footing for the future.
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