It was just a glimpse, but I was convinced I had seen someone I knew. I ran after them to see. But when I reached them and they turned around I realised they weren’t the person I thought they were and I made an embarrassing retreat. It was a case of mistaken identity.
How many times have you been in this situation?
In leadership, mistaken identity is not just where we mistake someone else for someone we know. It happens when those in leadership confuse who they are with who they think they should be. Mistaken identity is something that I have noticed many leaders suffer from.
Last week, looking at effective listening, the point was made that listening is a skill. It is something that can be developed and requires the listener to assign value to the person they are listening to in order to understand them. The mistake we make as leaders is to think that we have to be the most knowledgeable person in the room. Whilst no-one wants to look ignorant, to believe that you will know all that is going on is clearly not possible. This leads to an identity problem. Fear can drive leaders to try to be something they are not in the mistaken belief that ignorance is equal to incompetence.
“If we as leaders can talk about our mistakes and our part in them, then we make it safe for others to do the same.” Ed Catmull (Former President of Pixar)
The idea that leaders need to know everything stems from a wrong view about how teams function. The knowledge to solve problems resides in the whole team, each playing to their strengths. The leader’s role is to make it possible for those strengths to come together in such a way that everyone is released to bring their best.
Primarily it is about creating an environment in which innovation and creativity can thrive. You do not need to know everything to set up a culture where people can have passionate and unfettered debate around the issues that need to be discussed. Your skill is in recognising key actions and in learning. This kind of debate is only possible if the leader is vulnerable enough to allow for mistakes to be made, particularly as the team experiments with new ideas, and taking a posture of learning instead of blame if they occur.
This thinking is counter intuitive. Yet the evidence suggests otherwise. Being authentic, putting your hand up to a mistake you made makes it possible for the environment to change around you. When the leader models this kind of behaviour then it gives permission to the rest of the team to do the same. If there is a culture of fear around making mistakes, then it will drive the team to hide those mistakes and look to deflect fault.
In the interest of the team growing and being the best, it can be at problem solving then a leader who is confident in their identity is key. A leader with a case of mistaken identity will look to control rather than release those they lead to bring their best. If that is you then take a leap of faith. Be yourself. Give yourself permission to admit you don’t know everything and learn how to bring the collective wisdom of the team to the fore.
“The great leaders are not the strongest, they are the ones who are honest about their weaknesses. The great leaders are not the smartest; they are the ones who admit how much they don’t know. The great leaders can’t do everything; they are the ones who look to others to help them. Great leaders don’t see themselves as great; they see themselves as human.” Simon Sinek