Vulnerability makes stronger leaders
Instinct guides us toward pretending
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 first job on Capitol Hill nearly 20 years ago. At first 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 confidence 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-confidence, 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. Nonprofits, 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 effective and collaborative.
As leader of an organization committed to reducing barriers for entrepreneurs, I have also learned that it can be a challenge to find 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 first 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 fulfillment 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 confidence and deceit? It took the challenge of leading during a pandemic for me to find the right balance. I woke up each day for the better part of 2020 terrified 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 effective 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.