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The best way to prove you’re a competent leader? Admit when you’re wrong

Showing humility by honestly admitting our limitations and displaying a rightsize sense of who we are becomes more challenging as we move into higher or more visible positions.

The best way to prove you’re a competent leader? Admit when you’re wrong
[Source photo: Daniel Jensen/Unsplash]

The best story I know about confidence concerns Alan Mulally, former CEO of the Ford Motor Company, at his first meeting with the company’s senior executive team. Based on Alan’s reputation as a strong leader who excelled in getting people to work well together throughout his long career at Boeing, Bill Ford had recruited him to lead the company in 2006. This was unprecedented in a culture where being a lifelong “car guy” had traditionally been the highest accolade and primary proof of credibility. Every previous CEO in Ford’s history had been a lifer in the company.

Mulally, by contrast, was a self-proclaimed airplane guy, who habitually signed his name with a Chinese pictogram of his face on a plane, drawn in his own hand. He had initially resisted accepting the top position in an organization known for assessing talent based on automotive knowledge and experience. But Bill Ford pushed hard, recognizing that the company’s depth of knowledge had not been sufficient to prevent it from steadily losing market share and falling $18 billion into debt.

Alan’s first meeting with the Ford executive team—the generals and the colonels, as they’ve always been known—had the potential to be fraught. And sure enough, shortly after introducing himself, and sharing his pictogram, Alan was asked a highly technical question calculated to test his car-guy chops. The assembled leadership held its collective breath.

Alan thanked his questioner. Then he simply noted that, having come from outside the industry, he did not have the expertise to answer the question, reiterating that he had spent his career in aerospace.

One can imagine the shock. The newly appointed CEO of Henry Ford’s world-transforming company was publicly admitting he couldn’t answer a straightforward question because his background had not prepared him to do so.

Alan then pointed out that, although he couldn’t answer, Ford was filled with brilliant and experienced automotive experts who could. His job was not to provide answers but to create an environment that enabled the team at Ford to identify and implement solutions that could return the company to profitability and greatness.

How many CEOs would acknowledge during their first meeting with their new company’s leadership team that they didn’t know the answer to a vital question because their experience hadn’t qualified them to give one? And how many would say so plainly and clearly, without bluster or defensive pushback?

Yet Alan could answer this way because he had sufficient confidence to not be triggered into trying to demonstrate a competence he knew he did not possess. In addition:

•  He understood that trying to earn respect based on qualifications he did not have was a losing game.

•  He did not fear that demonstrating humility would result in him seeming weak.

•  He knew he couldn’t control what others thought (his circles of influence and concern were in alignment).

•  He trusted that the experience he did have would get results.

Showing humility by honestly admitting our limitations and displaying a rightsize sense of who we are becomes more challenging as we move into higher or more visible positions. Given that our global business culture often expects leaders to be all-knowing heroes or saviors, we get the message that if we let any chinks in our armor show, others may perceive us as undeserving of the power with which we’ve been entrusted. As a result, we may become so fearful of appearing vulnerable or underqualified that we end up misrepresenting ourselves.

This is not only true at the leadership level. Many of us equate being humble with opening ourselves up to humiliation. And so we’re tempted to pretend we have expertise that we lack.

Such responses do not serve us and are unlikely to yield positive results, in part because they undermine our ability to feel comfortable about ourselves. By contrast, Alan was confident that his well-honed ability to create a culture in which talented people could work creatively and collaboratively together could make him successful in the top job at Ford.

He also avoided falling prey to the common delusion that, because he had expertise in one domain, he was therefore an expert in everything else.

Coach Jeffrey Hull calls this “the fallacy of omnicompetence” and describes it as one of the most common hazards of outsize success. Says Hull, “People tend to extrapolate. They think, ‘I’m a great ER doctor, so of course I can run this hospital. It’s a no-brainer for someone with my skills.’ They forget that their skills, while considerable, have almost nothing to do with the job to which they aspire. Why? Because they have little sense of their own limitations.”

This kind of I-have-all-the-skills mindset shows a failure of self-awareness, adds Hull, noting that his job as a coach is to help clients view themselves more realistically. “They need to get comfortable letting others see them as who they are—skills, warts, flaws, strengths, the whole package. For this to happen, they need to accept the truth that excelling at one thing does not mean they will excel in another.”

Concludes Hull, “Having the humility to accept this makes you more human because you’re showing vulnerability. You let go of the burden of trying to prove you’re something you’re not. People avoid doing this, but it usually comes as a huge relief—to them, and to everyone around them. Because those who lack humility do not inspire trust.”

It’s worth noting that Alan Mulally’s confidence was firmly rooted in his competence: in the skills he had acquired, cultivated, demonstrated, and honed over the years on the job.

Excerpted from Rising Together: How We Can Bridge Divides and Create a More Inclusive Workplaceby Sally Helgesen. Copyright © 2023. Available from Hachette Go, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc. 

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Sally Helgesen is an expert on women’s leadership, an international best-selling author, speaker, and leadership coach. More

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