One of the hardest lessons any great leader must learn is that no one person is good at everything.
We all have strengths and qualities that, in some ways, set us apart from most people. In some people these are markedly so. And great leaders recognize these strengths and qualities in themselves and strive to improve upon them and focus them towards some greater purpose, some greater good.
But we all have blind spots, as well.
Authentic Leadership Means Knowing Your Failings
Samuel Clemens, famously known as Mark Twain, had many. He was revered as the consummate voice of mid-19th century America. His stories, tall tales, and inimitable humor propelled him to celebrity, fame, and he became something of a “rock star” prototype.
Yet he went into his 57th year of age broke, in debt, and on the verge of bankruptcy.
According to one of his biographers, Ron Powers, he finally confessed to a business associate in a letter that year that he was not a businessman. He wrote, “I am by nature and disposition unfitted for it.” Reviewing his debts, his unprofitable assets and investments, and his dismal prospects, he pleaded, “Get me out of business!”
Yet, reading through the series of decisions he made throughout his professional life, the advice he scorned or ignored, and the delusions of business acumen he fiercely held to – despite repeated evidence to the contrary – it is not hard to see in retrospect why he came to the financial brink as he did.
Authentic Leadership is Being Real
I want to bring out of Samuel Clemens’ dilemma three key lessons that I would categorize under the rubric of “Being Real.” This is a mantra of sorts that I subscribe to and is one of the core values of highly successful businesses and their leaders, and it encompasses a wide variety of qualities and nuances.
Avoid myopic behaviors. This is not to say that a leader shouldn’t be focused. But having intense focus and an unwavering commitment to a goal or a purpose is not the same as being blind to everything else.
Listen to your critics. Again, this is not to say that as a leader you should be easily swayed and dissuaded from your course or your decisions. But wisdom dictates that you must recognize your own limitations and possible misconceptions. Input, feedback, and plain ol’ disagreement are very healthy.
Quantify and analyze results. This has become a tired cliché of sorts, yet it is also a fundamental and perennial truth: if you do not know what the results of your actions and decisions are and analyze them for effectiveness and impact, you cannot know if or what corrective actions to take.
Fortunately for Mark Twain, his salvation came in the form of Henry Huttleston Rogers, Vice President and Director at Standard Oil Company, then owned and run by John D. Rockefeller. Twain’s introduction to Rogers was purely by chance – as these things sometimes are – but the resulting relationship, combined with Twain’s new willingness to learn and accept help and advice, turned his situation around.
While most of us will never have the advantage of multi-millionaire tycoon as business adviser, we can most certainly learn to keep our eyes and ears open, and learn to recognize our limitations while putting people, tools or resources into place to compensate for them.
And have a happy ending!