Recently I ran a poll asking if leaders should cover up their weaknesses. While 94% of respondents disagreed, a smidgeon (6%) thought they should. That result wasn’t unexpected, but in my experience coaching leaders, their reality is radically different…

Just about every leader I work with is hell-bent on hiding their weaknesses. They’ve been convinced by someone at some time that a leader needs to behave differently. They must look put together!

When they feel vulnerable, they hide it. They hide their struggles, particularly personal struggles and what’s going on at home. They hide not knowing the answer, believing they must be the ‘expert’ as not knowing damages their reputation.

But given the opportunity of working with a coach, most leaders will let down their guard and admit to how they’re really feeling, and often the tears begin to flow. And so do the apologies – “Oh, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what came over me.”

Well, I do…

You just had a moment of being real, of owning feeling scared, anxious, overwhelmed, incompetent, or some other challenging difficult emotion and you didn’t hide it.

You felt safe with me (as your coach), but you don’t feel safe sharing with the people you work with or lead.

Ironically, my respect for you just soared. Why?

Because I saw you – the real you!

And while being seen is wildly freeing, it’s also absolutely terrifying.

Humans are not designed to show weakness. We’re designed to believe our own BS, that we’ve got it all together, and to show that face to the world. It’s called image management, and it’s rife in the workplace.

According to Robert Kegan (An Everyone Culture), people spend 30-40% of their time at work doing a job no one is paying them for – “covering up their weaknesses, managing other people’s impressions of them, showing themselves to their best advantage, playing politics, hiding their inadequacies, hiding their uncertainties, hiding their limitations.”

For leaders, image management often plays out by hiding who you are and what’s really going on for you.

If you believe people will only trust, admire, and respect you when you’re seen as infallible (got your sh#t together, on top of things, managing, coping, doing the Superman/woman act, always looking like you know everything) then you’re in for a rude awakening.

I have news for you. Your people already know. They can see right through you.

The harder you try to look like you’ve got it all together, the less likely you are to pull it off and the less people trust in you.

Your people want you to be real, not perfect…

Now, I’m not suggesting you turn into a blithering mess, and spill in great unnecessary detail what’s really happening at home (perhaps you’re going through a separation, your teenager is off the rails, granddad’s got dementia, and you’re spending your evenings binging Netflix while guzzling wine).

I’m simply suggesting that you:

  1. acknowledge if you’re struggling with personal issues (if it’s impacting your work)
  2. stop bluffing and own up to now knowing (nobody knows everything!)
  3. admit when you haven’t got a clear plan or solution
  4. ask for advice and people’s opinions (get curious; it’ll grow your people)
  5. ask for support when you need it (and be clear about what that looks like for you, people are not mind readers).

Until leaders give themselves permission to be human (warts and all) and to respectfully ask for what they need they’ll continue on this endless fake road of image management, where nobody wins.

If you’d like to find out more about how I work with leaders to overcome image management go here or get in touch.