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Martin Davidson

Martin Davidson

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.

In praise of damaged leaders

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.

By Martin Davidson

 |  March 2, 2010; 5:45 AM ET
Category:  Leadership weaknesses Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Thanks for the food for thought. Leaders who open up too much risk losing followers. Those who open up not at all distance themselves from potential followers. Net: determining the "right" amount of information to disclose is a fine line.

The litmus test is in "ability to deliver". If a leader can't meet the commitments they make they're on shaky ground. For more on commitment making/keeping: http://budurl.com/utx9

Posted by: almcfarland | March 3, 2010 9:21 AM
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This perception of leaders trying to look flawless has not emanated from leaders but has come from the media and the general populous. I have worked with leaders for many years and know what makes them powerful. It is a difficult job and not one for the faint hearted. The general populous has absolutely no idea what is required and expects them to be able to change issues/problems that have been around for years. Their expectations are totally unrealistic and I think it is about time that we educated them about what the role really entails. It is only when people enter the world of management that they have ah hah moments.

Here is an excerpt from my second book on leadership called Sex in the Boardroom (systems approach to leadership).

Leadership looks deceptively easy for onlookers. They don’t know how living in this pressure cooker environment for years undermines a leader being able to deliver ongoing sustainable outcomes. Sometimes you’re on a high because everything is going so well, it all seems so effortless and then suddenly you think you’re going nuts and losing the plot because things went pear shaped.

You wonder why others can’t see what is going on when it is blatantly obvious to you. And the big risk is burnout, with all that hard work going down the gurgler.

When organizations have unrealistic expectations of their leaders and don’t provide them with ongoing development it is unlikely that the business will operate optimally in the long-term.
With leaders under constant pressure, when they’re not taking time out to think, plan or to really clarify what they are doing and where these behaviors are not seen as a legitimate benefit, it’s no wonder many fine businesses go down the tube. Get used to the idea that you don’t have to work yourself to death to prove you are a successful leader. Learn how to work hard and smart. Identify what behaviours don’t serve you well and change them, remembering to always bring it back to the bottom line: if I do this, I will get this outcome for those I lead and for the organization as a whole.

As you might imagine it can bring huge financial and personal benefits to any organization when they know and understand how to implement and work with systems and processes that deliver peak performance. When these structures are in place and adhered to the business gains many benefits.

You have to be action oriented and solution focused. You can’t let personal flaws, nervousness or self doubts get in the way. And because of this, it is clear the most exciting time an executive has is often in the boardroom because they’re firing on all cylinders, they are respected, listened to and exalted because they lead the show, are in control, are
powerful, knowledgeable and commanding.

Sex in the Boardroom (leadership)
If it’s to be: It’s up to me
Back from Hell

Posted by: IBCoaching | March 2, 2010 5:09 PM
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Dr. Davidson,

I agree that trying to look flawless is a is a serious problem that in the end makes us look flawed. People know us better than we think.

Additionally, our frailties do attract followers. Not all types of course. However many people are drawn to others when they let their frailties out.

I wrote a blog titled "Waffles" embracing the idea that frailties in leaders actually attract followers.


Leadership Freak
Dan Rockwell

Posted by: LeadershipFreak | March 2, 2010 9:49 AM
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