Leaders are Forged, Part 2

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.

4 Responses to Leaders are Forged, Part 2

  1. Corey September 28, 2014 at 1:52 am #

    I was actually thinking about survivorship bias as I made my way through the first few paragraphs of this and was surprised when you linked it without explaining more.

    It’s a valuable concept that I think is better framed independently of credibility, trust, or honesty. I think of it as fundamentally applying to the person analyzing a data-set and assuming the data-set is complete without realizing they are excluding data that did not “survive,” and of course one easy example is successful businesspeople.

    If you examine successful businesspeople alone you run the risk of assuming the traits you observe correlate with their success.

    “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.”

    More people fail than succeed at business so analyzing a complete data-set often allows you to discover that these supposed “leadership traits” might exist in the entire population including failed businesspeople, and notoriously this can be the case even when the “survivor” successful leader is being honest and holds the belief that they succeeded for those reasons on a deep level. Again, I think this shows why the concept of survivorship bias is important to highlight a fallacy of a person analyzing the data-set.

    • Brian Watkins September 28, 2014 at 6:09 pm #

      Good points about the bias.

      My thought when I started this was to examine whether the success a person claims to have is even legitimate or relevant to their claims of leadership prowess, and why it might be that it’s often so easy for someone to brag about some things they’ve done as a shortcut to gaining credibility. Survivorship bias is an interesting tie-in for this purpose, and acknowledging those that failed outright is important in a bigger picture. I could see where spinoff arguments could be made about those that were never successful and how traits compare to successful people and how that relates to the boasts of successful people, but I wanted to keep this post more to the behavior of the speaker and how it plays off of survivorship bias to “win” rather than an analysis of survivorship bias itself.

  2. Jason Migan August 15, 2014 at 4:51 pm #

    Well I don’t know that not throwing all your past failures out there for everyone to see means you’re untrustworthy, except in the extreme example you gave. The other post was a bit more focused.

    • Brian Watkins August 15, 2014 at 4:58 pm #

      I can certainly agree that nobody’s going to throw in “I’ve bombed 3 different startups before eventually starting a successful company” while they shake hands with someone. I probably could’ve been clearer on that, but what I’m getting at is that when people talk about themselves in a bio or whatnot there’s often too much temptation to over-spin the wins and conveniently dodge/ignore the missteps. There’s almost always a way to spin a “failure” into something positive if you need to disclose it, and I think a lot of people find it refreshing to deal with someone who is straight up about why they know what they know and where their advice is coming from. Thanks for commenting, though, and glad you liked the first post.

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