There is a very old saying often bantered around fake it till you make it. I never realised how true that is for most of us until recently.

Over the past 6 months, I have had the privilege of working/coaching the C-level executive team for one of Australia’s 4 big banks.  Simultaneously, as part of the deployment of our Critical Thinking Based Leadership program, I went through the same exercise for a large International Fortune 300 company based in the US.

What struck me was the similarities in uncertainty, self-doubt, fear of failure, politicking, ass-covering, hiding mediocre performance and emotional turmoil they all worked through in one way or another.

Viewing their lives and careers from the outside, you would never guess that they struggle with precisely the same uncertainties as the rest of us. That they mostly make core decisions on “gut” instinct and that they are as prone to pattern-based, instinctive thinking as we all are.

From people who regularly appear in the media – analysts advising presidents to managers earning millions of dollars a year our basic human insecurities are largely the same.

Oddly, their seniority only added a layer of pressure as they needed to maintain the veneer of untouchable emotional control whilst projecting the image of the consummate professionals that have all the answers (or at least pretends to). 

Our basic human need to fit in, to feel safe and the anxiety caused by the fact that those above us can damage our position if we are not part of the “inner sanctum” seems to drives most of our decision making.

Perhaps it is because the higher you go, the thinner the branches get. The result is the same, they all hide in plain sight.

It really struck me how much energy is wasted trying to ensure that we are “liked”. Worrying about “what they think of me and my performance” or trying to understand “why they did that”.

In the end, I fear, we really have not evolved that much. We still want to “fit in” or be accepted by our “tribe” (read peers), especially those above us.  And we want to be respected (feared?) by those beneath us as we jealously guard our branch of the tree.

The truly sad part is that as a result, we as leaders all seem to run around behind fake walls of “knowing-it-all” and “having-it-all-under-control”.  We create largely superficial relationships which are not just unhealthy but, I am convinced, fundamentally undermine our organisational cultures and hampers our ability to really learn from each other.

If I had to summarise my experience over the past 6 months in a few words I would say, we suffer from a complete lack of trust and total lack of authenticity. True authenticity requires consistency between our values and our actions. It allows for “fragility” – not a word many leaders are comfortable with I know

BUT, authenticity (or bringing my “real-self” to work) helps build deep relationships which, in turn, builds trust and trust is one of the key requirements for effective team formation. It unlocks your team’s true potential and ultimately helps drive the development of great cultures.

I don’t, sadly, have a trust or authenticity pill. But, I do know that we judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions.

As a result, we are all both the hero and the victim in our own internal narrative. A narrative deeply rooted in our personal biases, driven by our pattern-based thinking and fuelled by our emotions. This powerful evolutionary chemical concoction creates the perfect storm for misscommunication, poor decision making and ruined relationships.

We all fail. We all fear failure, but above all, we fear the conflict and fall-out that admitting to a failure will bring. The words, “I was wrong” seems to many what you say just-before-you-jump-off-the-bridge. And the words, “sorry, but I think you are wrong is essentially a declaration of war. 

This misconception, hugely intensified by our genetic inability to permanently break out of our pattern-based thinking and get to the truth, is at the root of so many of our personal and organisational failures.

We need to have the moral courage to openly admit to and, in a caring, respectful and appropriate way, point out the failures or incorrect assumptions of our peers. This openness is, as Margaret Heffernan so eloquently puts it, not the end, but the beginning.

See Margaret’s Dare to disagree video on Ted.

Imagine what would happen to your culture if you had the moral courage to say: “I need help”, “I don’t know” or (gasp) “I was wrong”.

Perhaps if our senior leaders are more open about their failures and more public in the acceptance of the consequences, thereby demonstrating their humanity/humility, those we lead would be less inclined to hide theirs and more trusting of their senior management teams.

Would they not, within that construct, be more willing to try, to participate and (most importantly) to speak up without fear of embarrassment or being ostracised by their “tribe”? 

What would it feel like to work for such an organisation? What could it achieve?

Churchill put it plainly. Failure is not fatal, and success is not final.

It seems this is a lesson we are yet to learn.

DF