As I survey the landscape these days it seems that somewhere along the line we may have lost/forgotten/misplaced our “moral imagination” (this was the phrase used by former Library of Congress Poet Laureate Robert Haas during my recent visit to the 12th bi-annual Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Waterloo Village, New Jersey…the four day festival was truly one of the most inspirational experiences of my life). The financial markets are in chaos, global geo-political initiatives appear frustrating and confusing at best, and as Bill Maher recently asked on his HBO talk show: “Are you better off than you were 4 days ago?”
In the midst of all this, can we re-imagine a future where world leaders make a positive difference? I humbly offer one perspective of leadership that may seem counter-intuitive, but resonates deeply with me. If, as leaders, we strive only to impress people by displaying our strengths, we may miss the chance to connect with others through the wholeness of our humanity which includes our imperfections and frailties.
At our company retreat last month, we divided the firm into five teams and introduced a sandcastle building contest. The instant we created the teams the competition began in earnest: private team meetings, strategizing, planning, etc., etc., etc. There was even some friendly gamesmanship expressed between the respective teams before the big event. Everyone was fully engaged in the activity. On the day of the competition, each team created an incredible work of art in the sand. Many of the most extraordinary contributions to the sand sculptures came from staff members who were not ordinarily in positions of leadership in the firm…and most telling of all, many of the firm’s established leaders did not have strong sculpting talents and, for the most part, performed relatively minor roles compared to those who stepped up as natural leaders in this activity. This role reversal had the unintended (or was it?) consequence of portraying the full humanity (foibles and all) of the leadership, as well as, highlighting the many hidden strengths among the staff members. In the end, a greater sense of trust and community was created as we embraced the collaboration and authenticity displayed by all who participated in this endeavor.
We can impress people from a distance but this doesn’t necessarily create the trust needed to lead. To do that, we must reveal the wholeness of our being, including our strengths and our weaknesses. Perhaps the most essential quality of leadership is credibility, otherwise, people won’t follow/trust/believe you. How do you build credibility? Certainly not by hiding your imperfections or creating an image of perfection. You create credibility by being honest and embracing the fullness of your own humanity. Only then do you deserve to be trusted with leading others.