Real Leaders Sweat

Never let 'em see you sweat.  This advice is commonly touted in a variety of high pressure situations: life, school, sports, business deals.  But does it have a place in leadership?

When I facilitate workshops on leadership with students and experienced managers I invite them to share the best leadership advice they've ever received.   This invitation prompts a rich discussion of sharing and learning from others. A range of advice is offered up, from standbys like "Lead by example" to delightfully unique ideas like "You got to risk it to get the biscuit."

Each time I do this exercise I am reminded of my own opportunities for improvement.  Fortunately, I am also reminded of the good things that I am already trying in my own leadership roles.  Because of both, I walk away from this activity mindful and refreshed.

But, recently one impassioned leader's advice gave me more pause to think than usual.  She shared this familiar bit of advice once passed on to her by a mentor: Never let 'em see you sweat.

Really? Never? I don't know. I'm not sure I agree with this one.

When I think of the best leaders I've had, I think of the ones who acted like human beings and showed me that they weren't perfect.  Who asked for my input and advice because they didn't know all the answers.  The ones who demonstrated vulnerability, fear and uncertainty in the face of pressure because they needed help and guidance from their teams, peers, and leaders.  These are the leaders who I wanted to follow.

Why am I drawn to this imperfect leader?  Because I believe deep down that perfection is an impossible state of being.  And because I believe this, I generally have difficulty trusting the person who comes across as always perfect.  I will follow someone who seems authentic and real, and that means they are inherently flawed. Like me.

But this often trumpeted advice to never let 'em see you sweat is actually compelling on the surface. It might suggest that we should stand strong, confident, and assured in the face of adversity.  That we show people we always know the way, can answer any question correctly, and can tackle any challenge without skipping a beat. That sounds wonderful. And seductive. If you can reach this state while appearing real and authentic at the same time, then more power to you.

But be careful. It is easy to be seduced by this unrealistic ideal. In fact, I speculate that for many it is born from the belief that people who see you struggling, or discover your weaknesses, will use that against you. That's a pessimistic view. I choose to be more optimistic. I choose to adopt the attitude that if people use my weaknesses against me, then these are people I will choose not to work with. And I'd rather endure that short-term pain in order to uncover the truth, learn from that experience, and discontinue that association.

Now, on the flip side I appreciate people want to follow those who exude confidence, can lay out a clear path, and win most of the time.  And I understand people don't want to follow leaders who fail most of the time. So, is there a happy medium?

Next time you're faced with doubt in a leadership moment, try this.

  • Be honest about your uncertainty
  • Seek ideas from others
  • Make uncertain choices, confidently
  • Be realistic about outcomes

This could look like the following:

Okay team, this issue is new territory for me and I'm not 100% sure what to do. With that said, I know we need to do something about it.  So, let's generate some ideas together.  From all the ideas, I'll pick something to try and then we'll see what happens.  It could work, but if it doesn't then we'll take our lumps and try something else.

On the 2013 season of Celebrity Apprentice Penn Jillette, of the magic team Penn and Teller, said this: "In business, sometimes making a decision is more important than the decision you make." Well said, magic man. When we confidently make uncertain choices, we are doing what a character-based leader does. We are leading with integrity.

In closing, I prefer to follow the imperfect leader who admits she made a mistake or knows he lost his way. This signals to me they are self-aware and willing to improve. A leader who tries to be perfect all the time is too busy covering his tracks to focus on improving himself or his business, or to raise up the people around him.

This advice is due for a rewrite.  Let's replace "Never let 'em see you sweat" with "Never let 'em see your sweat get the best of you."



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