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How to Be the Messy Leader Your Employees Want You to Be

In a fast-paced, ever-changing world, it's hard to be perfect. Ameé Quiriconi shares four tips for becoming a messier and more human leader.

Building leadership skills

Leadership is a hard job in general, but strengthening leadership skills during times of change can be particularly difficult. And it seems like putting on a stoic facade is the right thing to do when you’re dealing with challenges or trying to make big changes on your team. But when things are hard – and today they are – what employees want from their leaders is not a brave face hiding the suffering. They want someone who understands how hard it is for them and can show them the messy road between where they are today and where they are going. While this sounds good, it can also be difficult because people don’t want to show their warts or weaknesses. So here are four tips for becoming a more human, messier leader.

Be honest with yourself

First, understand the resistance in yourself to changes, including building new leadership skills and changing your style. One way is to understand that resistance comes from a place of fear. In the case of being a leader, many fear looking incompetent. Feeling fear and insecurity makes us human. Once we can be okay with being afraid of change, we can give ourselves some grace. When you have some self-awareness of your own fears, you are better able to recognize and validate the possible concerns others may be experiencing as well.

Be willing to make your mistakes publicly

You must show your team how hard and how easy it is to change. Let the team see the struggle and even the mistakes you make during a change, whether it’s personal development or the implementation of a new process. The point is to model the messy, real way changes happen in life instead of skipping to the easy part.

When messy leaders are open about their successes and mistakes, teams feel more comfortable with each other and begin to trust each other over time. People who have been through a lot of change know how hard it is, and they’re looking for someone who understands them.

Be transparent

Today’s leadership culture is very transparent, and leaders who cultivate an honest culture help employees feel connected and inspired. That’s why transparency is a powerful tool in the hands of an effective leader. Leaders who are transparent with their employees help them understand the decision-making process and can increase buy-in for those decisions. If you want a culture of leaders at every level, share your story of how you arrived at a choice. This teaches your team how to be better problem solvers themselves.

But transparency can also create a secondary side benefit. It inspires creativity from teams by giving them a chance to critique your ideas before they’re put into action.

Be held accountable

Finally, permit your people to hold you accountable. One of the reasons we leaders fail to grow in our positions is because we don’t have enough people challenging us to do better. In fact, our culture of leadership makes it hard and even threatening for the “mere common folk” to point out when their leaders have messed up or are falling short. Our natural self-protection system, cognitive dissonance, makes it even harder for us to see it all on our own.

While most of us have learned to receive criticisms from coaches and teachers, some never learn how to receive feedback from our peers or subordinates without getting our feelings hurt and egos bruised. Properly handling feedback is one of the most necessary leadership skills.

Not all critiques you receive will be valid and actionable, but getting feedback from your employees still allows leaders to practice two important things.

Two benefits to feedback

One, we normalize the practice of getting this feedback. I turn, it teaches us how to shut down our automatic ego-defense system so that we can process what someone is trying to tell us without feeling upset.

Second, this feedback is fertile ground for sharpening our own social intelligence skills.

For example, if you have someone on the team that says you’re intimidating, but everyone else thinks your behavior is appropriate, don’t ignore this outlier. Instead, ask yourself how you might shift your tone or approach towards this employee to meet them where they are. If your demeanor is off-putting to some people, then your ability to connect and inspire them is greatly reduced.

And here’s a bonus benefit for this last tip: by demonstrating how to receive feedback in constructive ways, you model what a “leading by learning” organization looks like. Plus, your willingness to be vulnerable in this way helps develop psychological safety for everyone.

Leading humans is a messy job

Becoming a messier leader doesn’t mean you have to be messy all the time. But whether you want to admit it or not, leading humans is a messy job. When things are hard, what employees want from their leaders is not perfection. They want to know that they are not alone. Today’s leaders don’t need to be across the finish line waving everybody in. With a fast-paced, ever-changing world, all we need to be is one or two steps ahead with a flashlight guiding everyone along the journey.

About the author

Ameé Quiriconi is the Founder of Activity Girl, LLC. She helps leaders and organizations maximize business results and improve workplace culture by blending emotional and business intelligence. She hosts the mental health podcast, One Broken Mom and wrote The Fearless Woman’s Guide to Starting a Business: What Every Woman Needs to Know to Be a Courageous, Authentic, and Unstoppable Entrepreneur.

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