Friday, April 5, 2013

Should leaders be a little less like George Washington?

One of the things I enjoy most about working on a college campus is the frequent opportunities I have to attend lectures where I can listen to really good thinkers share their thoughts. A few weeks ago, Ron Chernow was on BYU's campus discussing his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Washington: A Life. In the book, Chernow attempts to reveal Washington as a much more dynamic, passionate, and human (even flawed) leader than we typically assume. In his remarks at BYU, Chernow began by dispelling a number of myths about Washington (e.g. the cherry tree legend, his wooden teeth, his supposed wig, his overestimated height) to invite the audience to reconsider their image of Washington as a flawless, perfectly disciplined, almost god-like character from history. He then went about sharing insights from his research that suggest that Washington was, in fact, a fiery man with a temper, a son with a strained relationship with his mother, and a conflicted slave owner who struggled to know how to own slaves and believe in the inherent worth of human beings. At first glance, it seems that Chernow's book is meant to destroy Americans' image of Washington as a spotless hero, worthy of adulation. And, while the book is intended to paint a more realistic portrait of the complexity of Washington's character, it is anything but derogatory. Rather, by understanding Washington as a real man with real struggles, his successes and abilities are magnified and he seems that much worthier of respect.

As I listened to Chernow that morning, I couldn't help but wonder what the implications of his book are for leaders, particularly leaders who feel pressure to maintain a public image of perfect poise, unflappability, and effortless success. Chernow notes that one reason Washington has long been held as this type of character was that he was incredibly emotionally guarded and intensely private. While this meant that Washington was a well-respected leader, Americans had very little affection for him. It might be fair to wonder whether Washington's contemporaries liked him, or just merely respected his abilities as a leader.

For me, Chernow's book makes a good argument for the importance of appropriate self-disclosure for a leader. That doesn't mean airing all of our dirty laundry for all to see, but it does mean being human and allowing others to see us in this way. Our fear, of course, in letting those we lead see our flaws is that they will somehow consider us unworthy or incapable to teach the class, lead the department, or make the tough decisions that face those at the top. However, there are a number of reasons why being open is a good thing for leaders.

1. It humanizes us. When we let others really see who we are, we become real and accessible. Hearing our stories of failure, horrendous mistakes, stupid oversights, fears, and anxieties positions others to see themselves in us. That's important because a distant, untouchable, flawless leader isn't just hard to like, he's hard to follow because he charts a course that we can't possibly travel.

2. It connects us. When a leader is open, transparent, and willing to self-disclose, she creates a space where others in the organization feel comfortable doing the same. That openness leads to better communication across all levels of the organization and facilitates a free-flow of information that is vital for decision-making.

3. It provides a model of growth and becoming that lifts the entire organization. One of my favorite parts of Chernow's lecture was when he described the experience he has of being asked the rather naive question, "What was George Washington like?"  His response is both witty and astute: "At what point in his life?" One thing that Chernow has done very well in his research is to shed light on how Washington changed across time.  Yes, at the end of his life, Washington was a tremendous statesman, politician, general, and leader.  But, the man he was in 1797 when he retired from the presidency, was much different than the precocious young military major who led troops in the French and Indian war. Washington became a great leader over time, but few people know that he went through growing pains. Leaders who are open and transparent about their experiences, particularly those that have shaped them, provide a vision for others of how they can grow and become over time.  And, that might be one of the most important things a leader can do for those in her organization. 

In short, we want and long for leaders who are like us--imperfect, occasionally stupid, and muddling along. But, too often, we don't see that side of them (and they/we all have it) because they won't show it, or we won't allow them to because of our expectation for heroes who never fail and legends who "never tell a lie."

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