Last week, I was invited to contribute an article for our company’s monthly publication. The first thing that came to mind was leadership – I’ve had many thoughts about it recently.
With this write up, I am hoping to give our company’s front runners some words of encouragement.
Here it goes.
PERFECT LEADERS ARE NOT PERFECT
Let me confess something.
All my life, I have been struggling with leadership phobia. I dread at the thought of it.
This is ironic for me as I have handled quite a few leadership roles from grade school up to college and even in the corporate world, where I am now. For some reasons, anxiety would fill me every time a leadership opportunity lands on my lap.
About a year ago, together with three of my friends, I decided to venture into the food business. Pulling our resources and skills together, we put up a food stall in a location fronting a call center company’s building that would serve meals from breakfast until dinner. We were optimistic that the business would go far as the demand for our product was really high in that area.
It went smooth for a few months. We were able to pay all the bills and wages and although it was not hitting our target profits, it was enough for us that the business was operational and surviving. We all believed there’s a good future for it and that we just needed to buy time.
Then came our biggest breakthrough. We were invited to join a bidding process to become a food concessionaire in a multinational company with more than 500 employees. If we won, we were assured of good profits as the market would be an easy capture.
Up against bigger and more established businesses, we did not hesitate to push through. It was a rare opportunity for a small start-up like ours, thus, letting go was definitely not an option. We were happy to be given two weeks for a trial run.
One partner emerged as the leader in the process of prepping for the longest two weeks of our lives. We did not make any formal agreement that he was going to lead, he just rose up naturally. And we all respected him. Perhaps, because he was the most skilled, most confident and the most determined in the team.
We began by hiring and training more employees. On the get go, we realized that it was more difficult and sophisticated than we thought. Marketing for the ingredients every day, making sure that food was delivered on time and overseeing the performance of our staff were too much for us to handle given that all of us had a full time job as the priority. We were so overwhelmed by the daily challenges that we had arguments and tensions at times.
One week through the operations and we were really stressed out. To make things worse, our team lead had to go out of the country as required by his job and hence, could no longer join us during the second half of the run.
Consequently, someone had to take his place. He rooted for me. But I was not willing.
I was terrified at the thought of leading the business at the time the risks were too much to bear. One simple mistake such as late food delivery or unfriendly customer service and our bid would be doomed to a losing end.
More fears crept in. I asked myself questions like “Am I ready to lead people who are way older than me? How could I possibly earn their respect? What about criticisms and huge responsibilities?”
Negative thoughts were unstoppable.
Willy-nilly, I accepted the challenge as the circumstances would give me no other options. I became a leader but without a wanting heart. As a result, I wasn’t able to give my all.
Whenever I would check the staff every morning, I felt as if there was a wall between me and them. I would try my best to present myself like any good leader would – open, confident, and firm, but inside, I wasn’t convinced at all that I deserved to lead them and surely, that didn’t go unnoticed. I felt paralyzed as a leader. I wanted to excel but my fears would hold me back.
In the much bigger business world, even the top executives in huge companies fall prey to this distress. Some may not acknowledge this but it’s there nonetheless. Where does it really come from?
I see one reason for this – the horror of failure. The risk of not surpassing the expectations.
When you become a leader, you become the face of the organization you represent. When you think of Apple today, you think of Tim Cook, when you think of the US, you think of Barrack Obama, when you think of Facebook, you think of Mark Zuckerberg.
A leader’s name is forever attached to his organization. That’s too much of a pressure to handle, don’t you think? If your business fails, your name forever brings the brand “failure”.
And then, there’s the tendency of criticisms. “Does the newly-appointed Rajeev Suri have the CEO skill set needed to bring Nokia back to world-class standing?” “If only so and so got elected. “
But why grapple with the negatives when we can choose to dwell on the other side?
While it is true that your leadership has a chance of destroying the organization, it is equally true that your leadership can take it to heights.
I like what Forrest Church said in his book “Freedom from Fear”:
“Being human, we err. Some call this original sin; it certainly suggests original guilt and demands the rites of self-acceptance and forgiveness. A moral perfectionist lives in constant fear because moral perfection lies beyond our grasp. Perfectionism is a form of self-abuse. ”
All of us have this sense of perfectionism within us. We don’t mind our strengths and capabilities and all good things about us being exposed. What we don’t want people to find out is our weaknesses and insecurities. We simply can’t afford to expose our inadequacies in fear of rejection.
The truth is nobody has it all together. As James 3:2 puts it “For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.”
As leaders, we don’t need to wear the mask of perfection. Instead, we can choose to become better at every opportunity but in order to become better, we first need to embrace the fact that we can never be perfect. Recognizing failure, however, does not mean settling for mediocrity. Rather, it means owning them and learning from them as we move forward, making a commitment to right the ship. Perfectionism, in contrast, will lead us to denying the wrongs and not minding them, pretending they did not happen.
The fear of failure was just in my mind but I allowed it to grow bigger than the actual failure itself. Many call this ‘analysis paralysis’ which is the state of overanalyzing a situation. Let us not allow ourselves to succumb to this as the danger is great. What happens when a leader does not step up? The organization could cripple down and its effects can be unimaginable. History has shown us many examples of this.
Looking back, I realized I could have done so much better in that short stint of leadership I was granted. If only I stepped up instead of becoming a coward, it could have made a difference somehow. But what is done is done. That could be one of my shortfalls as a leader but what matters more is the wisdom I have gained from it. I won’t choose to dwell in what has been as there’s still so much promise that lies ahead.
As I go forth and experience more and more failures, I can only become wiser and wiser. Just as fear of failures cannot be wished away, it need not incapacitate leaders like you and me. Let’s choose to overcome it.
2 Timothy 1:7 “For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.”