I blogged recently on leadership and becoming an expert by overcoming failure, and the concept has stuck with me for a week or so. I’d touched on the concept of how the best thought leaders tend to be those who have overcome failure rather than those who have succeeded (perhaps by accident) in most of their ventures. It may seem counter-intuitive at first, but in the latter case even while one succeeded, he or she doesn’t necessarily know what specific decisions or mechanisms made it so.
Living a charmed life is nice, but if you had to explain to someone else why you were successful it might be hard to pin down a concrete answer since it all just seemed to work out. On the other hand, someone who has tried and failed a few times before getting it right can tell you very clearly what not to do and probably knows exactly what allowed them to succeed in the end. Then the nature of one’s background seems relevant to leadership even in ways that aren’t as obvious.
We can establish all sorts of metrics for measuring expertise or determining the validity of someone’s background. That speaks mostly to the question of how much someone knows, though. To dig deeper, to get at the intangibles like integrity and charisma, we can simply reflect on the same point about the nature of one’s apparent authority in his or her industry.
I think transparency is a big component of leadership/expert validity. A successful businessman who owns his failures and is honest about previous ventures is doing more than demonstrating the lessons he’s learned. His willingness to share these things speaks to his principles about how he even does business, what he values, and how he will likely treat those he works with. Someone who covers their missteps in a vain attempt to be seen only in the most positive light is wearing a mask by only showing an aspect of truth. They will continue to justify withholding truth in the name of efficiency, strategy, keeping morale up, etc. These things have logical merit but are a slippery slope. What begins as sensible white lies or “necessary” omissions can become a pattern of behavior. A pattern of blame-shifting and denial, of getting what you want through leverage and deception rather than goodwill and inspiration.
They will rationalize the behavior and choose to see it as an isolated set of decisions, as if saying “I just do this in this circumstance in business; it’s not who I am.” How convenient.
It’s illogical to think that people carry two completely separate sets of thinking patterns and problem solving skills around with them to employ at will. You may wear different shades of the same color by situation, but to assume one can be the most wholesome, honest man in his personal life and a ruthless person from the hours of 8 to 5 is silly. This may seem an exaggerated example, but it’s exactly the claim that’s been made to me enough times to bear mention. We are the sum of our decisions in all things we do. How we conduct ourselves in business is absolutely who we are, even when “it’s just business”-type decisions must be made. To claim otherwise is a cop-out.
So to circle back and reiterate, there is a lot of inherent trustworthiness in presenting a balanced view of yourself in leadership. Thinking that the only way people will respect you is to use a loaded deck that presents only the most ideal, artificially heroic image of you is misplaced. It’s narcissistic and assumes little of others, either because they won’t know the difference or because they can’t handle reality.
To quote Ben Folds, “If you can’t trust, you can’t be trusted.” Or to reinterpret that slightly, if you won’t respect those around you professionally and intellectually enough to be straight with them, you’re probably unworthy of their respect.