Who's got your back?
Dear Mary and Jack,
Today I’ll be sharing my thoughts about collective strength, and how it emerges out of the awareness of individual weaknesses. It helps of course if we agree beforehand on what individual strength or weakness is, but I’ll deal with this question superficially for now, by saying that it has two interesting attributes:
The first one is that a strength is always one end of a polarity. Every strength has a flip side weakness. For example, some people are decisive, they can make decisions in high uncertainty situations. It denotes self-confidence and the ability to decide with a mix of data and gut feel. When this ability becomes a habit, the habit of deciding quickly without waiting for more information, decisiveness becomes impulsivity. Decisiveness and impulsivity are two sides of the same character. Whether one or the other comes forward is a matter of situational judgement, and whether deciding quickly is a good thing or not, is a matter of context. Sometimes decisiveness is necessary, sometimes patience and gathering more information prevents a disaster.
Second, no matter how hard we try to show our best profile, we always reveal both sides of our polarities. We cannot show the strength without as well showing the associated weakness. For example, I am an emotive person. I experience lots of emotions, varied and intense without the need for strong emotionnal triggers. This is great because it keeps me authentic in my contact with others, it is a great engine of trust. Unfortunately, it means I am also prone to overreacting, which can damage the relationship as well… Flip side, can’t help it, and people will take notice of both.
So when we show our strengths, we show our weaknesses as well: A good planner can lack flexibility, a great networker can struggle with keeping deeper relationships, and so on. It may be possible for an individual contributor in a team to offer a smooth profile, but leaders have it otherwise. Your polarities, dear Mary and Jack, are exposed for everyone to see.
Positions of responsibilities work like a magnifying glass. Everything a leader says or does, will be dissected by their team and the world outside, consciously and unconsciously. Leaders’ discourse pertains to the direction of travel, and the strategy adopted for the journey, a subject of major concern for all the people who follow them on the road.
Your team members will constantly look for clues in your behaviour that you are a trustworthy and capable person, and cues in your words on where and how you see the next action unfolding. The collective thoughts and conversations of teams about their leaders work like a microscope or an echo chamber. Your words sound louder, your actions seem larger. Because of their implications, they literally resonate in the souls of your team members.
This is a challenging situation. No matter how hard leaders try to appear strong, they will deceive no one. But it offers us an interesting corollary: If we show our weaknesses, we show our strengths as well. It works exactly in the same way. For example, if I come across as overreacting, I also come across as authentic. One is less desirable than the other, for sure, and I would rather experience my manager’s authentic side rather than his overreacting side, but deep down I know they’re a bundle.
One classic hiring interview question is: “What weaknesses do you have?”. It’s hard to answer this question in a straightforward fashion. Whilst nobody would describe themselves as perfect, being specific about our shortcomings in a situation where we are trying to look our best is counterintuitive. I always ask it, and I mostly hear in response: “I am impatient.” One commonly accepted understanding of being impatient in this context, is that it shows we want results fast, which seems to many a desirable attribute for a candidate. I suggest that a good way to go about this question is to present our polarities, for example: “I am a good planner, which means I also sometimes lack flexibility”. But impatient or not, this example shows that we all have a grasp of the concept of polarities and that we know it works both ways.
The question therefore, dear Mary and John, is not whether you should show your weaknesses, because on that count you do not actually have a choice. The question is how and where you show what.
A leader’s world is divided in two. Their team, and the world around it. Every way you cut it, there is always this simple divide, identical for a CEO or a scouting squad leader. At the frontier between the two is an invisible contact surface, a little bit like the membrane of a cell, keeping its integrity whilst allowing exchanges with the outside world. These exchanges may be the weekly conversation between your project managers and the finance team, or the regular calls between your account managers and their customers. The simple fact is, for every team, there is an inside and an outside. And what you do inside and outside is of great importance.
Corporate vocabulary illustrates that life at the contact surface where your team members are engaged, can sometimes be rough, when words like 'in the trenches' or 'in the field' are used. Not everyone outside the team is an ennemy of course, but everyone inside should definitely be friendly.
For every person in an organisation, their team is where they are taken care of. Whether that happens in reality depends on each leader, but in principle, leaders care for their people, the way a shepherd cares for his flock. If the example of the shepherd is too soft or too biblical for your taste, take that of an army lieutenant. This 1 minute scene from the epic movie “We were soldiers” evidences this quality with great clarity.
If the team is a place where care can happen, then surely it is the place where weaknesses need to be revealed (Take your boots off!). I am not writing this lightly: the weaknesses that are not shown and dealt with inside the team, will reveal themselves outside, to the wrong people and at the least appropriate time. To come back to the abovementionned scene, if the feet problems of one soldier are not seen and dealt with in training and inside the team (their bruised ego notwithstanding), they will manifest themselves in real battle, and the cost may be much higher than bloody socks…
It is incumbent on you dear Mary and John, to make your teams a place where it is safe for people to be open about their weaknesses so that you can take care of them. If you know that your planner sometimes lacks flexibility, then maybe sending him alone in a delicate negotiation situation with a client is not the best idea. If you had no idea of this weakness, you may find yourself with a disgruntled employee and a very frustrated customer.
And that brings me to the crux. How you invite your team members to let you and the team take care of their weaknesses, is by showing your own. Make your team a place where strength is on display 24/7, and as soon as the going gets tough, you will get defeated by all sorts of previously unseen evils. But make your team a place where human frailty has its place and is cared for, and you will see them close ranks in hard times. Thus comes collective strength out of caring for individual weaknesses. Note that in the movie, you can bet that no matter what feet injuries are suffered, the training will go on. Caring for people's weaknesses does not equate to abdicating your purpose, and it sure does not mean being weak yourself...
There is nothing easy about acknowledging our limitations, least of all in front of those we lead. It requires us to seek humility as a desirable leadership trait, but therein lies collective strength. And if you and everyone in the team share their weaknesses, and you have their back, they will also have yours.