As a leader you don’t have to have all the answers – sometimes it can help
to say when you have made a mistake
Managers are often worried that letting their defences down and admitting to
mistakes will undermine their authority. But showing vulnerability at the right
time and under the right circumstances can actually have a positive impact.
Sharing weaknesses and showing feelings is not something that comes easily
with the British ‘stiff upper lip’ culture, but in these days of economic
turbulence and unpredictability it is something that leaders need to learn. And
learn you can, as the skippers in the BT Global Challenge 2000/1
round-the-world yacht race proved, as they led their teams through some of the
most hostile and challenging conditions faced by man.
Researchers tracked the skills and behaviour of the skippers taking part to
try to identify what it was that enabled the winners to inspire their teams and
sustain performance. One of the key messages to emerge from the study was that
leaders should not feel threatened when they don’t have all the answers.
What they do need, however, is self-awareness and an appreciation of their
strengths and weaknesses; confidence in their own skills and abilities; and an
overriding sense of self-belief that is not diminished when they are faced with
The BTGC skippers needed to have confidence in their sailing and seamanship
and a belief in their ability to deal with whatever they encountered. But if
they were struggling with a problem, they needed to admit this to the crew and
seek the input and expertise of others in the team. Getting the best person
involved in finding a solution not only showed they were a good manager of
resources, but ultimately enhanced their credibility when the team achieved
We have an in-built self-protection mechanism to fight against revealing the
truth. When faced with a mistake or inability, we will try to explain it away,
or simply not address the issue. However, being honest and showing
vulnerability can be rewarded, when those around you realise you are human and
rally round to help you move on.
One skipper, who took a risky strategy that failed and put the team at the
back of the fleet, realised it was no longer possible to win the race. This
skipper gathered the team together, openly admitted his mistake and the
position and sought to get their buy-in to a revised goal. The team was clearly
disappointed but agreed a new goal and went on to become more united and
achieve better results, finishing in the top half of the fleet.
Aside from weaknesses and mistakes, selectively sharing your feelings can
have a positive impact on your team. One skipper who openly shared his feelings
with his crew, found the crew were able to do the same and as a result they
grew much closer. This skipper created a culture of openness, honesty and
trust, where the crew would give feedback to one another, addressing irritating
habits that could otherwise have festered.
The significant issue for leaders is to use vulnerability with care. Know
when it is appropriate to show it and ensure you assess the situation and those
around you first. It would not be appropriate for skippers to share their fear
of entering the Southern Ocean and concern for their ability to handle the
yacht in 40ft waves as they were sailing round Cape Horn.
Be genuine and use vulnerability honestly. Overuse and abuse is simple to
detect and is the easiest way to lose respect and loyalty. Recognise that by
using vulnerability appropriately you can enhance your position as a leader and
inspire your team.
By Andrea Bacon a research director of Inspiring Performance.
– Further examples drawn from the BT Global Challenge study can be found in
Inspiring Leadership – Staying Afloat in Turbulent Times, by Andrea Bacon, Jane
Cranwell-Ward and Rosie Mackie, published by Thomson Learning