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Leaders' strengths and weaknesses

Are you appreciating the success in failure?

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Susan P. Chen, director of HR for Asia Pacific at Visa Worldwide, and author of The Success of Failure, acknowledges the growing importance of authentic leadership on celebrating failures and embracing weaknesses.

The concept of “authenticity” has its origins in Greek philosophy, where it is considered an important state, through an emphasis on being in control of one’s life and the ubiquitous admonition: “Know thyself.”

Authentic leadership, in this sense, implies leading others with the full understanding of your own strengths, weaknesses, values, with a sense of alignment and clarity.

But how does this concept relate to failure? Simply put – authentic leadership embraces failure and weakness, which in turn, encourages the power of vulnerability.

In a 12-minute TED Talk by Brené Brown on the power of vulnerability, she shared the key findings of her research: what separates people who hold a strong sense of “worthiness” from those who do not?

It turns out that what separates them is a clear sense of courage and the ability to fully embrace vulnerability.

Having such courage means having the compassion to be kind to themselves first and then to others, as we can’t practise compassion with others if we can’t treat ourselves kindly.

Authentic leaders build trust and legitimacy through honest relationships with team members, building on an ethical and honest foundation.

As a result of authenticity, people were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were – which you absolutely have to do to forge meaningful connections, and lead with influence.

How can you be an authentic leader?

In an organisational context, this means to lead without trying too hard to be a leader. However, authenticity may not always be pleasant.

Authentic people have the willingness to say, “I am wrong” or “I am sorry” first. They have the willingness to do something where there are no absolute returns; or to say “no” when a “yes” is demanded.

Authentic people are willing to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. They are willing to lead when success isn’t a guarantee.

Authentic leaders build trust and legitimacy through honest relationships with team members, building on an ethical and honest foundation.

Generally, authentic leaders are positive people with truthful self-concepts, who promote openness, and improve individual and team performance in good times and in bad.

It seems like a logical evolution of leadership. We see corporations moving from purely shareholder and money driven to focusing on CSR and thriving for deeper connections with employee engagement and empowerment.

The power of storytelling

Recently, there has been attention on the power of storytelling in translating authentic leadership into leadership practices.

We hear the story of Steve Jobs and his no-apology, straight-talking leadership style, and the return of Martha Stewart, continuing to build her empire after a very public failure.

The ability to share your own failure’s narrative means you are at peace with your imperfections. Such awareness allows you to embrace others’ shortcomings with compassion, and treat yourself and others with more kindness.

More importantly, storytelling allows the next generation of leaders to see and learn from their role models’ failures.

Success stories are like receipts allowing for copying and pasting, while failure stories are personal and connect with individuals differently, providing personalised room for reflections.

How to lead in times of failure

Leaders don’t get to lead only in good times, but also in times of failure – be it a personal failure or team defeats.

The first time when such reflection hit me in the face was when I was called out by a direct report as being impatient and too direct in my feedback to the point of limiting others to be the best they can.

I think about that moment every time I reflect on my leadership style going forward.

Leaders don’t get to lead only in good times, but also in times of failure – be it a personal failure or team defeats.

I continue to embrace a style as to who I am, but nowadays I openly ask others to speak up instantly if my style is counterproductive to the situation.

Instead of blindly changing who I am as a leader, I ask for help from those I am leading, as vulnerable as admitting weakness may be.

Embracing the success of failure in leadership may seem counter-intuitive in the business world, as leaders are expected to be strong and lead, and to a certain extent, predict success and lead the team to the path of glory.

It is scary, but starts simply from self-reflection.

With that in mind, I end with an encouragement to you to reflect on your authentic leadership with a few questions:

  • How are you allowing your team the room to celebrate failure?
  • How are you constantly demanding for perfection?
  • How are you mentoring and coaching your team through imperfections?
  • What is your failure narrative? What story of failure are you willing to share?

Authentic leadership requires you to look deep within yourself to connect with not only your strengths, but also your limitations. It is a journey – connecting your head with your heart.

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