Do the best leaders feel inadequate?

Friday, March 11, 2016 - 14:48

Have you ever been told you are an inadequate leader?

If you haven't, you're missing out. Believe it or not, the key to being a great leader may actually come from being inadequate.

Don't believe us? Well, the idea that the most successful people are those who feel inadequate actually came from an unlikely source: Sir Bob Geldof.

The traditional leadership model is one that values infallibility over admitting weakness.

The value of inadequacy

According to Bob Geldof, the best leaders he has met in his lifetime have been those who feel inadequate. In a speech before the Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand awards night earlier this year he explained that the great leaders he has met all shared this sense of dissatisfaction.

This flies in the face of a huge part of the conversation around leadership; the traditional leadership model is one that values success over failure and infallibility over admitting weakness. However, that might not be the best way to approach leadership in today's environment.

Instead, those leaders who Bob Geldof identified - names like Angela Merkel and Tony Blair - shared a feeling of inadequacy about themselves and the world around them, one that stemmed from an almost brutal sense of self-awareness.

Turning inadequacy into self-awareness

At the centre of this notion of inadequacy among leaders that Sir Bob Geldof observed is that leaders understand their strengths (and more importantly, their weaknesses) which they use as motivation. These leaders will then constantly move to address their shortcomings, either through specialised leadership training or by building a team around them who are strong in these areas.

Of course being self-aware is already a significant issue for many business leaders and managers. According to research from consulting firm Korn Ferry, there was a strong correlation between managers with poor performance and those who lacked self-awareness. In fact, these overconfident individuals were 79 per cent more likely to have professional blind spots.

What this hints at is that a lack of self-awareness isn't just an individual problem, it's one that can easily permeate an organisation and ultimately affect its performance.

Global Vice President of the Korn Ferry Institute Joy Hazucha went on to suggest that the answer was for leaders to build self-awareness by seeking the advice and feedback from others. Having these appraisal mechanisms within an organisation can help to ensure that managers at every level are nurturing a sense of self-awareness.

The other side of this trend was observed by a study from consulting firm Green Peak Partners, which found that, despite being an overlooked criterion in leadership search, self-awareness was a strong indicator of success among an executive team, and especially with the CEO.

What does it take to become an inadequate leader?

While self-awareness and an understanding of your own weaknesses is clearly an important quality for aspiring business leaders, this isn't a skill that can be picked up overnight.

Teams with high self-awareness made higher-quality decisions.

In a Harvard Business Review article, researchers from DePaul University emphasised three different strategies that can foster self-awareness in the workplace. Alongside personal management training, the authors suggested organisations need to be utilising assessment tools for self-awareness that are closely linked to performance outcomes, thereby incorporating professional development into career advancement.

The research also found that teams with high self-awareness made higher-quality decisions in the researcher's simulated activities (68 per cent opposed to 32 per cent), while also outperforming on coordination (73 per cent to 27 per cent) and conflict management (65 per cent to 35 per cent).

These figures underscore how important it is not just to aspire to be an inadequate leader in your own role, but also to build a team environment that embodies this sense of self-awareness.

While becoming self-aware is no small feat, it can help to escape the rat trap and become leader who knows their own inadequacies and uses them to become better in their work.