On Leadership
Video | PostLeadership | FedCoach | | Books | About |
Exploring Leadership in the News with Steven Pearlstein and Raju Narisetti

Gail S. Williams
Leadership administrator

Gail S. Williams

Gail S. Williams directs the Leadership Alchemy Program at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

The self-aware leader

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?

Being human means that each of us possesses a mixture of virtues and vices. I've yet to meet or learn of a person, however good or evil, who possesses one to the exclusion of the other. That said, effective leadership begins with self awareness. Being continually self aware requires a lifelong commitment to what I like to think of as an inward learning journey in an ever changing world. The best leaders embrace this dynamic aspect of living and make many powerful choices, each and every day, that support the future they desire, and in the case of elected leaders, have pledged to support. These choices include what virtues and vices to manifest -- to what extent and in pursuit of what objective.

Next, effective leaders need to be both authentic and trustworthy. Again choice is important here. Authentic leaders intentionally choose to be transparent, sharing much of who they are, both through their words and their deeds. The more I know about a person, vices and all, the closer I feel to them and the greater our bond. Of course, there is a limit to the type and magnitude of vices I can accept and still consider a person worthy of my trust.

Every conversation and every act reveals more of who we are. Because language is generative, every thing we say creates the future. At a very basic level, trustworthy leaders are those whose actions are consistent with their words. Trust is the foundation upon which leadership is built. Viewed more deeply, trust requires that others assess us to be sincere, reliable, and competent/capable of doing what we promise. If a leader is judged untrustworthy, because one or more of their vices undermine their sincerity, reliability, and/or competence, then their effectiveness is compromised, and the followership they desperately need to manifest their policies and decisions is undermined.

I've yet to find a person who possesses only virtues. Those who believe that of themselves lack credibility and I judge them to be untrustworthy. Each day we are presented with a series of choices -- some more or less significant than others. The impact and import of these choices are awe inspiring for leaders like President Obama and Prime Minister Gordon Brown. As critical leaders of the free world, their personal vices undermine their effectiveness when those who need to trust them no longer do so. This includes world leaders -- both allies and not -- along with the people who carry out their policies and implement their promises. Last, and certainly not least, this also includes the electorate who judged them worthy when voting them into office in the first place.

As a non-smoker whose parents died at a relatively young age from illnesses exacerbated by smoking, of course I believe it preferable for President Obama not to sneak an occasional cigarette. In smoking he models behavior I prefer he not. The fact that he possesses what I consider to be a small vice makes the president more real and approachable, in my mind, while not undermining his effectiveness and trustworthiness.

By Gail S. Williams

 |  March 1, 2010; 2:36 PM ET
Category:  Leadership weaknesses Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Leaders who are 'just like us' | Next: Leaders: Approach the confessional!


Please report offensive comments below.

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 within a few months. 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 book on leadership called Sex in the Boardroom.

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 organisation 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.

Posted by: IBCoaching | March 1, 2010 11:50 PM
Report Offensive Comment

My wife still smokes, and I've lived in N.J. my entire life (surprised I never took it up...) so please don't take this as a testimonial (though I am a conservative Republican).
Never smoked (other than an ocassional cigar), but even as a 7 year old, I understood that it was harmful and 'some kind of health risk' (renal artery operation).
Thank God, I had the wherewithall to 'burn' an imprint into my head as my father waved down to me and my siblings (my mom was in room with dad; renal artery operation)to never pick up a cigarette.
It is an extremely difficult thing, I am sure, to totally give up smoking.
God Bless the President and any of you who are suffering or finding other hardships in giving up smoking cigarettes.
Joe (The Engineer)

Posted by: jahoby | March 1, 2010 10:43 PM
Report Offensive Comment

A sincere campaign promise is necessary but not sufficient condition for good leadership. A leader, to be effective, must be able to fulfill a good portion of his campaign promises. Otherwise, what would he do in the NEXT ROUND?!

Posted by: chawsheen | March 1, 2010 7:31 PM
Report Offensive Comment

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company