We all know the archetype of the strong leader: the fierce, steely-eyed commander rallying their troops, shouting out orders and driving their team to “win” (the war, the game, the account, whatever). The commander is bulletproof, indestructible. He — and it’s usually an alpha-male “he” in our culturally normative imagination — is never wrong and never shows weakness. Women aren’t left out of the “show no weakness” norm; in a comment that resonates with many women I’ve spoken to in what I call “Organizational America,”* one female undergraduate at Duke University described the “effortless perfection” women were expected to live up to on that campus.
But there’s a problem with that entire idea. While it works fine as a trope in John Wayne movies and deodorant ads, it doesn’t hold up in real life when it comes to a useful leadership model, especially in a world that is becoming increasingly team-focused and collaboration-driven.
In real life, teams evolve and succeed best when they operate with a sense of psychological safety. Leaders play a huge role in creating that safety by moving away from the image of an invulnerable commander and embodying a more human, vulnerable truth: they get hurt, they have health issues, they make mistakes. Even those steely-eyed leaders are learning to be upfront with their flaws: one of my favorite videos on this topic shows an officer from a Blue Angels flight demonstration squadron leading his team of pilots in debriefing a flight, including bringing up his own errors.
When they allow themselves to be real, leaders embody multiple facets of the Co-Active Leadership model. By developing the Leader Within, they give themselves permission to accept and even embrace their own imperfections. From that place, a leader can more fully embody the Co-Active Leadership principle of Leader Beside and “modeling a relationship that is human and authentic” (Co-Active Leadership, p. 62). By demonstrating their own imperfect humanity, they are taking ownership of their part in co-creating an environment that gives permission to their teammates to be real human beings as well. This allows others in the group to see that vulnerability is not a flaw, setting the stage for the high performance that comes from a sense of belonging and psychological safety.
Leader Beside then becomes part of the designed alliance or group norms for a team. When it becomes acceptable to make mistakes, it becomes acceptable to take risks. And only teams willing to take bold risks will have created the opportunity for bold success.
The question then remains: how do we bridge the gap for leaders struggling with that old perfection archetype and working to evolve into Co-Active leaders? There are two questions that are very helpful in this process. “What do you gain by appearing perfect?” is the first one and prompts some interesting insights. The second one helps create the most reflection and growth: “What does that perfection cost you and your team?”
*I use this term instead of “Corporate America” because I see the same issues popping up in the non-profit and voluntary sectors that I see in for-profit business. I feel that “corporate” vs. everybody else is a false dichotomy.