I think of myself as strong.
I see myself as someone who can manage a lot of stress. Who can get a tremendous amount accomplished in a day. Who can work long hours and pull through in clutch moments. Who doesn’t give up in the face of problems, but works tirelessly until they are solved.
I am a leader and most leaders I know feel the same way. We have to — our companies, our employees, our clients, our families — they all rely on us to pull through in the clutch. And we do. Sometimes, in our skillful mastery of pressure, complexity, and accomplishment, we can feel super-human.
But then, on my way to dinner in New York with old friends from high school, my bicycle hit a pothole and stopped abruptly while I flew over the handlebars and slammed head-first into a parked car.
Dazed, bloody, lying on the street, I couldn’t think. Some people nearby came to ask if I was OK, but I didn’t know. They asked if I needed water, but I didn’t know. When I eventually staggered to me feet, they asked if I needed to sit, but I didn’t know.
Looking back on that moment, here’s what I did know with absolute certainty: I am very, very human.
As a leader who advocates vulnerability as a strength, I am surprised to realize that I have, somehow, bought into the notion that I need to be super-human and that any weakness diminishes my leadership.
In fact, I see clearly now that it is precisely the opposite. Not acknowledging our weaknesses is counter-productive for two simple reasons:
One, it’s unsustainable. Life inevitably catches up to us and then, eventually, we must face the inescapable reality that we are human, with weaknesses, flaws, and faults.
Two, it’s poor leadership. Leadership is about connection. People will only follow you, work hard for you, create and risk and sacrifice for you, if they feel connected to you. So here’s my question: Will anyone ever be able to truly connect with you, really trust you, honestly give you their all, if you only reveal to them the parts of you that you think will impress them? How long do you think you can keep that up? How long before they become disillusioned?
In other words, hiding our weaknesses in an attempt to be strong leaders makes us weak leaders. Our vulnerabilities make us most vulnerable when we pretend they don’t exist.
Here’s what’s important to remember: our struggles do not define us any more than our successes do. You are not weak; you have weaknesses. There is a difference.
And from this place of humanness, that can hold both strengths and weaknesses, we can do the most leaderly thing there is: Ask for help.
When I eventually got up and stumbled to dinner, I was greeted by concern and support. My friend Toby got her car, threw my bike in the back and drove me to the emergency room. Pam, Susie, Nicky, and Vicky all came to sit with me at the hospital late into the night.
I was lucky not to be alone that night, and that was thanks to my humanness, not despite it.
And needing help — asking for help — is an essential part of being a leader. While I’ve always known this, I’ve also always secretly felt that it’s a leader’s job to help others, not to need help.
But that’s a myth. The reality is that leaders who don’t need help have no one to lead. People feel good when they help. They are inspired when they are needed. They don’t think less of the people they help, they feel more connected.
I am not superhuman. Nor are you. And that’s not only OK—it’s better.
Originally posted on Harvard Business Review
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