By Jesse Sostrin
The simplest questions sometimes hold the greatest potential for insight. As a leader, consider this one: Would you follow you? Not you on your best day, or your worst day, but on a typical day — when you’re communicating, solving problems, and making decisions with the natural tendencies that shape the character of your unique leadership style.
This question matters because when you’re just being you in the company of your team, bosses, and clients, you are continuously showing whether you are someone to trust.
If you’re authentic and fully invested in making an impact while enhancing the experience of those around you, then you strengthen your case. Conversely, if you’re inauthentic or let yourself be silenced in the moments that matter, your case weakens every time you withdraw.
Photograph by borchee
Simply said, you can’t follow someone you can’t see. That is why visibility and transparency mean so much in the realm of leadership. They are not just buzzwords; they produce the visceral experiences and tangible markers both potential and current followers evaluate as they mediate their level of trust and commitment to a leader. Unfortunately, leaders often adopt counterproductive behaviors that make them disappear in the eyes of their colleagues.
These compromising actions, or inactions, limit leaders’ visibility and ultimately diminish the reasons they give others to follow them. The effects of these disappearing acts are especially detrimental because they often go beyond the immediate event and play out in patterns that have career-damaging repercussions.
As you seek ways to elevate your impact on your organization and avoid career-limiting habits, consider these three common excuses that result in this withdrawal of self and discover strategies to turn those moments into growth experiences.
“I will be redundant.”
As a leadership coach and business advisor, I’ve seen a variety of counterintuitive behaviors that leaders justify with reasons that appear intelligent, but don’t hold up under closer examination. Talking yourself out of making a comment or sharing a perspective during a meeting is probably the most insidious of them all.
Compromising actions, or inactions, limit leaders’ visibility and ultimately diminish the reasons they give others to follow them.
“It’s already been said, so my statement would just be redundant.” “My boss was planning to make a similar point, so I don’t want to risk stepping on her toes.” “The meeting was starting to wrap up, so I didn’t want to extend things and waste people’s time.”
On a basic level, these explanations make sense — but if they render you silent and invisible, they come at a steep cost. There are no hard and fast rules about whether and when to speak, but keeping a seat at the table is not a passive pursuit. Once you’ve earned it, you need to be heard, you need to be seen, and you need to leverage the opportunities you’ve been given.
You can be a little redundant if it means getting yourself into the conversation. You can complement your boss’s point without horning in on her territory or appearing to disingenuously flatter. And you can own the mantra that if you think something is worth saying, then it’s worth sharing.
Bottom line: It’s worth the risk of being somewhat redundant in the pursuit of reaching a valuable comment, point of view, or plan.
“I might say it wrong.”
While it’s true that people think in diverse ways and some of us process information and formulate thoughts more quickly than others, this logic is a poor justification for self-silencing.
“It might come out wrong and I don’t want to look bad.” “I’m afraid that I’ll sound stupid.” “This is a high-stakes meeting with some very senior people, so there is no margin for error.”
If you process slowly and have a high regard for always finding just the right words, then you might feel perfectly justified in statements like these. But moments of impact are fleeting, and the risk that you take — trading timely relevance for the desire for perfection — means that you may miss your chance to make any impact at all.
Conversations are malleable. They can withstand our imperfections and still turn out well. It’s also true that what we say is going to be subjected to the perceptive filters that others apply (i.e., biases based on their habits, beliefs, past experiences, etc.), so our meaning may not be received as we intended regardless of how perfect we think we have presented our thoughts. Because perfection is out of reach anyway, speaking up in the moment is more about the substance than the polish.
Bottom line: It’s worth the risk of saying something imperfectly in the pursuit of saying something that matters.
“I could get emotional.”
Unfortunately, there are still many organizational cultures where the honest expression of emotion is unwelcome. The result is a form of self-censoring that reduces the passion and urgency of communication.
“If I talk about my struggles, I might get choked up, and then I’ll look weak.” “Others may perceive me as unstable if I show a lot of passion, so I should tone it down.” “My colleagues already know how I feel about this, so it isn’t necessary to share.”
Holding back a powerful story or choosing not to express a dynamic point of view for fear of showing too much emotion is understandable. Being real is by definition a risk. But these excuses filter out the thing that could actually be the most powerful, compelling trait of your leadership: showing the world around you what you believe and are willing to fight for. When you bury your authenticity to stay safe, you also reduce the magnetism and conviction that comes with showing others what you care about and how you feel about what matters most.
Bottom line: Although it’s not a wise career move to be untethered, picking your moments to be less filtered will help you bring yourself more fully into the work you do.
Whether or not you can relate to these three specific examples — or some other counterproductive notion that keeps you on the sidelines — the important thing is to challenge the assumptions that hold such beliefs in place. For example, if you hear yourself say, “It might come out wrong. Maybe I should just let it go?” ask yourself, “Would I rather be imperfect but in the mix, or mistake-free but invisible?”
Focus on the “inner game,” that tug of war inside your head between the constructive and destructive thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs that subtly — but powerfully — shape behaviors and performance, and start seeing through the flawed rationale of your disappearing acts. This will allow you to step up in the moment with greater confidence. In turn, you’ll gain more visibility and ultimately give others a clearer and stronger set of reasons to follow you. It’s OK — in fact, it’s necessary — to get your hands dirty before you worry about cleaning and polishing. That’s because people don’t want to follow perfect — they want to follow real.