Thursday, February 19, 2015

Vulnerability and Self-interest: Qualities of Great Leaders

What is more important in a leader: the ability to project authority, or a knack for earning the trust of one’s cohort?

Surely both qualities are indispensable. But the latter is a precondition for the former. Unless they trust you, your team will be unwilling or unable to recognize your authority as a competent decision-maker. In other words, their confidence in you is a sine qua non of your effective leadership.

What is the source of this confidence?

There are many possible answers to that question—depending in part on the individual and the circumstances. However, two important but somewhat counter-intuitive leadership traits often go overlooked: vulnerability and self-interest.

Before I elaborate, allow me to define both terms.

Vulnerability in this context refers not to weakness, but rather to the capacity for empathy, humility, and accountability. In order to relate to the personal challenges faced by your employees, accept constructive criticism, and admit your own shortcomings, for instance, you must first let down your guard and accept that you are merely human.

Self-interest means the intellectual and moral steadfastness to pursue your own best interests, and the best interests of your business and your team, even in the face of counter-pressures.

Vulnerability and accountability

Occasionally, you will encounter people who attempt to mask their own vulnerability, presumably because they worry that others will try to exploit chinks in their emotional armour. But this is a false choice. It takes courage to acknowledge one’s vulnerability; on the other hand, many people associate a refusal to acknowledge vulnerability with a lack of authenticity, or even a deficiency of courage. Have you ever known someone who consistently refused to admit her own defects and attempted to mask problems—either personal or professional? Are you left with a favourable impression of that person?

Vulnerability is a prerequisite for developing meaningful personal connections with other people, including co-workers and employees. One of the most important ways this manifests itself is in the form of accountability and forgiveness. We all make mistakes, and the way we respond to them (both our own and those of our peers and employees) is crucial.

 A rigid, institutional intolerance of error has the effect of deterring even mundane risk-taking. A manager who refuses to countenance the missteps of her employees is somewhat like a vehicle without brakes. If we were all obliged to drive brake-less automobiles, motorists would putter along very slowly, avoid hills, and approach stop-signs and intersections at a snail’s pace. In other words, no one would get anywhere very quickly, and our society and economy would suffer the consequences. In the case of a business enterprise, this is analogous to reduced productivity and diminished willingness of employees to venture outside their comfort zone.

Nonetheless, forgiveness is not exactly the same as tolerance of error. Instead, the goal of a leader should be to identify miscues and point them out to the responsible party, allowing reasonable leeway while discouraging repetition of previous mistakes. Naturally, in order to build credibility for this purpose, leaders must be prepared to take ownership of their own failings too.

Self-interest versus selfishness

Through his magnum opus, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Scottish Enlightenment philosopher and political economist Adam Smith popularized the idea that self-interest on the part of individuals would ultimately enhance the general welfare of society. One of the examples he cites is that of a baker, who produces bread for his customers not purely out of benevolence, but also in order that the baker himself may earn a living.

Centuries after the publication of that work, debate still rages as to exactly what Smith had in mind, and about the extent to which “greed is good.” But self-interest and greed are not necessarily synonyms. Another interpretation of “self-interest” is “taking care of oneself in order to better one’s chances of helping others.”

Leaders nearly always face extraordinary demands on their time. On a personal level, it is crucial to appreciate the role of time management and the effect of stress with regard to your own health and well-being. If you aspire to a long and successful professional career, you need to ensure that you lead a healthy lifestyle which includes adequate down-time. At times, this will require you to delegate duties to others. It may also require you to turn some invitations and opportunities down.

This concept of self-interest can also apply to your business and your professional team. In order for your enterprise to thrive, you will need to make choices, some of which may be difficult. But by putting the rational interests of your business ahead of competing priorities, you will increase your chances of success over the long term.