What is the Most Counterintuitive Leadership Superpower? Never Look Too Good Or Talk Too Smart

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What is the Most Counterintuitive Leadership Superpower? Never Look Too Good Or Talk Too Smart

The best leaders I know share a common and under-appreciated “superpower.” It isn’t being the smartest person in the room, and it definitely isn’t magically having all the answers. Many of best motivators share something else in common: they are willing to poke fun at themselves in order to disarm, build trust and create a safe environment. They are unashamed to admit that they, too, have flaws and make mistakes.
In short, their philosophy is: never look too good or talk too smart.
Let me illustrate the point with the story of “Pete Planchock, the Preacher Pitchman.”
Puzzled by the Pitchman
Pete was the second person I hired in my career. He ran our General Motors-Fanuc Robotics’ West Coast office and set himself apart right away as an exceptional public speaker. He would stand in front of a room and, in no time, have the audience hanging on every word. I nicknamed him the “preacher pitchman” because he was such an inspiring speaker and was never without, what he called, “the 30 pound pitch” which consisted of a huge black leather briefcase full of sales presentations that sounded like a set of barbells hitting the pavement when he amused us by simply releasing it from his hand.
One day we were driving together to visit a prospective customer outside of Los Angeles. When we got in Pete’s car and the radio came on, I was surprised to hear that it was tuned to a religious radio station and a minister was preaching with fervor.
He Said, ‘Ain’t’
Pete was pretty tough looking. He had done a stint as a roughneck on an oil patch. I figured him as more of a rock-and-roll kind of guy. So, I said, “Pete, what are you listening to?” With a glimmer in his eye, he said, “I’m doing research.” Then out of the blue he says, “Did you hear that? He said ‘ain’t!’”
I was flummoxed. “What in the heck are you talking about?” I asked, completely mystified. Then I heard the truth about Pete.
Pete’s Secrets
None of us would ever have guessed it, but Pete admitted to me that when we hired him, he knew he was going to have to do a lot more public speaking as part of the job—and this was something that terrified him. So he figured he would learn how to do it better from the best speakers around: the folks who stood up in the pulpit and gave a sermon every Sunday. Pete told me how he spent months moving from church to church to learn from the best speakers and copy their styles.
I was blown away. So I asked Pete if there was anything the best speakers had in common. “Yes,” he said. “They never look too good or talk too smart.” And as we drove along listening to the radio, he pointed out again and again how the speakers would use their own slip-ups and failings to connect with their listeners.
What Pete taught me that day is that the most inspirational people out there understand that being authentic and real—and yes, flawed—is one of the most important elements of leadership . We all know that nobody is perfect. Why should we expect leaders to be different?  
Real Honesty–Not Pretend
Now here’s a very important distinction: I’m not talking about pretending to have flaws to manipulate people and make yourself more likable. Believe me, we all have plenty of genuine imperfections. I’m talking about being willing to be honest about your true shortcomings.
After all, why pretend? The truth will come out. Probably is out already anyway. So why keep playing this game when the real key to building a high-performance team is to establish the kind of safe environment where everyone is willing to admit their flaws and even have some fun with it.
Planchock’s Law of Authenticity
Showing vulnerability by admitting your failures builds trust in others. This is one of the foundations for building lasting relationships. And the more vulnerable and authentic you are right from the start, the quicker you can build trust. This is what I affectionately call “Planchock’s Law of Authenticity.” 
It’s this authenticity that is the under-appreciated “super-power” of some of the best leaders I’ve known over the course of my career. They weren’t great because they were the most articulate or had the highest IQ.
We live in an age where we think we need to hold ourselves to superhero standards in order to lead. Can someone who is flawed, just like the rest of us, inspire? Shouldn’t we aim to be better than that, or do our best to hide our true selves so we’re always setting a shining example? 
Funny, but that’s the key to understanding why never looking too good or talking too smart is actually the overlooked superpower of leadership.
Inspiration, Not Perfection    
Great leadership is grounded in the idea that people need to be inspired, not driven to attain perfection.  We want to be coached, not rescued, with the freedom to push ourselves further without the fear of failure. And that all begins by setting an example that, yes, we’re all in the same boat. Imperfect. When you toss out that fear of not being perfect, that’s when the real magic can happen. 
Next time you find yourself standing in front of a crowd, don’t pretend to be perfect or have all the answers. Chances are everybody already knows your flaws, fears and failures or they soon will, so why not admit it? Have fun with it. “Mock yourself out.” A self-deprecating sense of humor is a superpower and a key to being an authentic leader.
For more great leadership insights, see my conversation with General (Retired) Stanley McChrystal, author of Leaders: Myth and Reality and hear what he has to say about mentorship and leadership.