“…no one can fill those of your needs that you won’t let show.” – “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers
Leaders often struggle with what I’ll call the “vulnerability conundrum,” namely:
How do I get better at my job without exposing my weaknesses to those who evaluate me, follow me, and compete with me?
Today’s prevailing wisdom is to “leverage your strengths,” and I believe that’s the shortest path to more good things and less energy required. We must also understand our needs as a leader and find ways to address them. That’s the shortest path to fewer bad things and less energy wasted. Vulnerability is the key to quickly and effectively addressing our needs.
I’m not saying that you should try to turn your weaknesses into strengths or spend time trying to become better at skills requiring an inordinate amount of energy from you to improve. But what if we reframed our weaknesses/development areas/opportunities as one-off, situation-specific needs? What if, instead of viewing them as inborn traits required to be successful, we saw them as basic ingredients for today’s recipe for success? In that context, you’re not fundamentally flawed, you’re just one egg short.
Let’s consider a scenario:
You’re in the kitchen baking your famous red velvet cake to take to the neighbors’ house in a few hours–it was a hit at their last dinner party. The ingredients are out, pre-measured, and ready to go. The clock is ticking and you start baking! Suddenly, halfway into combining ingredients—mixer whirring— you drop your last egg on the floor. You’re disheveled, covered in flour, and a trip to the store is a time investment that you can’t afford right now. What do you do?
A) Quickly borrow an egg from your neighbor in your frazzled, flour-covered state, return and bake a perfect red velvet cake
B) Google “how to replace one egg in a red velvet cake recipe,” close your eyes, and hit “I’m feeling lucky”
C) Just keep going and hope for the best
D) Scrap the cake and hope they like the barely-touched eggnog ice cream from the family holiday party with the giant ice crystals in it?
There’s no wrong answer here, but there are a few that preserve your pride at the expense of your fellow diners. An egg on the floor doesn’t have to feel like egg on your face.
It sounds silly in this context, but it’s what happens every day at work. Somehow our tolerance for vulnerability changes when we punch the clock.
We would rather expend additional energy trying to create or discover a solution to our problem alone than go to someone who can help with a little flour on our face.
The simpler, faster solution (saying I need help in an area) feels like an admission of inadequacy that undermines our credibility and reputation forever (it isn’t, and it doesn’t). Ultimately, it’s the entire team and the business that suffers as a result of a subpar solution. Is your pride that valuable?
Being one egg short today doesn’t make you a bad baker. Done proactively, asking for specific help instead of delivering a bad outcome actually keeps your reputation intact. It highlights the short-term need and ties it directly to that specific situation. And it prevents your need from becoming a team problem. Your neighbors have been an egg short before–no reason that your shortage should doom us all to frost-bitten ice cream.
Embrace vulnerability as a tool for deeper working relationships. Offer your team an opportunity to help you improve in the areas you’re working on. Your success makes their lives easier. Chances are, they know your strengths. And they’ve probably realized by now that you’re human and, therefore, not perfect. Most skills gaps are just a short-term need, not an incurable deficiency. You’re not forever eggless…you just need one egg today.
Ask for the egg, bake the cake, and move on to the next challenge!