The Oklahoman

Vulnerabil­ity makes stronger leaders

Instinct guides us toward pretending

- Elizabeth Frame Ellison Special to The Oklahoman USA TODAY NETWORK Elizabeth Frame Ellison is president and CEO of the Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation and founding member of VEST, a network working to elevate the voices and opportunit­ies for women across

One day ... I admitted that I didn’t know what to do. To my surprise, that was the solution.

“Fake it until you make it” has been my personal life motto since my first job on Capitol Hill nearly 20 years ago. At first glance, that might seem counterint­uitive to leadership, but this simple phrase is a reminder that vulnerabil­ity enables leaders to collective­ly build and maintain high-performing teams working for a common interest.

We often falsely equate confidence with competence and leadership, leaving employees who can’t or won’t conform to this social style, feeling inadequate. Impostor syndrome is a fairly universal feeling among people attempting something new and challengin­g. Rather than rewarding only employees that exhibit strong self-confidence, organizati­ons must intentiona­lly create an environmen­t that fosters a variety of leadership styles and in which diverse racial, ethnic, and gender identities are commonplac­e.

Diversity in the workplace produces better outcomes, and we still have work to do. Female presence in government, philanthro­py and business is a result of decades of grassroots activism and begrudging­ly developed legislatio­n. Nonprofits, startups and corporatio­ns are still mired in the cultural inertia of the good ol’ boys’ clubs. Biased practices across institutio­ns routinely stymie the ability of individual­s from underrepre­sented groups to truly thrive because they are forced to embrace leadership styles and systemic barriers that prevent them from being effective and collaborat­ive.

As leader of an organizati­on committed to reducing barriers for entreprene­urs, I have also learned that it can be a challenge to find the right balance between faking and making it. We must weigh opportunit­ies to be brave with new ideas, while also making responsibl­e decisions. The recent downfall of several high-growth entreprene­urs should serve as a cautionary tale for anyone building something new. Socalled Unicorn startups with charismati­c founders like Elizabeth Holmes at Theranos, WeWork’s founder Adam

Neumann and more recently Carlos Watson, of Ozy, lead with bravado and optimism to woo investors, while working behind-the-scenes to deliver an often unvalidate­d product or service to an increasing­ly competitiv­e market. However, many successful startups took calculated risks that paid dividends: Apple announced its first iPhone before it knew how to mass produce them. Reddit used bots to teach users how to populate their site. Zappos bought shoes to ship from stores before its fulfillment center opened. In their own way, each of these entreprene­urs was also “faking it” by doing what was necessary behind the scenes to launch and scale their business.

Where is the balance between confidence and deceit? It took the challenge of leading during a pandemic for me to find the right balance. I woke up each day for the better part of 2020 terrified to open my computer and see what new unsolvable challenge would confront me. I felt the pressure of a leader without good options, and I believed my role was to have all the answers. One day, out of exhaustion and desperatio­n, I admitted that I didn’t know what to do. To my surprise, that was the solution. Not only did it feel honest to admit I was stumped, but my vulnerabil­ity also unlocked the talents of my team, allowing them to think creatively and use other skill sets and life experience to help our recovery.

Strong leaders build effective teams and empower them. Instinct often guides us to pretend we have answers when they don’t exist.

By being willing to fail and try again, I give my team the freedom to try a new approach and acknowledg­e when it isn’t working to help inform the next action so we can pivot quickly and try again. The result? “Faking it” feels a lot more like thoughtful experiment­ation, and “making it” feels a lot more like teamwork.

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