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In Praise of Damaged Leaders

Dr. Martin Davidson is Associate Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business where he also serves as Associate Dean and Chief Diversity Officer. He blogs at Leveraging Difference.

Barack Obama still sneaks cigarettes. Gordon Brown has a mean temper. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin struggles with her weight. At what point do a leader’s personal vices begin to undermine effectiveness? Is it better to hide them or acknowledge them?

The greatest misstep I see contemporary leaders make is trying to look flawless. There is a model of leadership out there that says that in order to be an effective leader, a person must appear to be more knowledgeable, more competent, more ethical, more poised, and more inspiring than the people she or he leads.

This need to appear to be all-but-perfect gets leaders in trouble. First, it makes them hesitant to show that they might not know all the answers. One corporate leader I met was convinced that his people respected him because he was always prepared for tough questions and had good answers if he was ever asked. He was confident that he was inspiring his people with his formidable ability to give them the answers they needed. When I talked with his people, they had a different impression. They said he came off like a headstrong, rigid know-it-all, unwilling to concede that someone else might have a good idea, too. This leader’s need to look like he knew all the answers blinded him to the debilitating impact his behavior was having on his people.

Second, the desire to appear perfect makes leaders avoid taking risks that help them support and learn from others, especially those who are very different. In my research and consulting on diversity and global leadership, a very common scenario plays out all the time.

After being belittled at work, an Asian man talks with a white U.S. leader who, trying to support him, tells him she knows what he is experiencing ("I know just how you feel–as a woman that happens to me, too"). His reaction is that she can’t really know how he feels because what she experiences as white woman is different from what he experiences as an Asian man. He walks away from the conversation feeling that she was disingenuous and even offensive.

The leader’s mistake was avoiding speaking openly with her colleague because she worried that the conversation would lead to a sensitive discussion of race and culture and that she would further offend him by unintentionally saying something hurtful. Real support would have been to risk talking with her colleague openly, because maybe such an open discussion was exactly what would have helped him. Sure she might have said something offensive, but sometimes, leadership is taking that risk. Leadership means not being handcuffed by your fear that you might not do it the right way. Leadership is about making mistakes and learning from them. Leadership is being willing to appear damaged.

The great leaders of the 21st century will be very competent at what they do, make no mistake about that. But they will also be courageous in their willingness to support their people, even if it means being seen under harsh lighting. They will know what they don’t know and will be open to having others teach them. Our next great leaders will dare to be flawed and that, in part, is why people will follow them.

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