Leadership Myth #4 – Leaders Never Admit to Limitations

“So, what have you learned from this?”, the psychologist asked. After thinking for a moment I responded, “I used to think of having limitations as a theoretical possibility.”

Warning: this post may be a bit “TMI” for some. I do not pretend that what I’m about to recount is in any way exceptional.  Others carried a heavier burden than I did and achieved better results. But, this is my story.

Between the fall of 2001 and the spring of 2003 I commanded a team of about 120 soldiers. Our job was to be ready to deploy anywhere in the world on very short notice, providing communications, IT, and other support services to a military headquarters. (Astute readers will recognize that this was a particularly challenging and demanding period to have such a role.) At the same time, I was dealing with protracted and emotionally draining issues as a parent. In retrospect, I realized even then that the combined load might be too much for me, but I wasn’t about to admit that.

My reaction to these challenges was to emulate Boxer (the plow-horse from Animal Farm) and his mantra, “I will work harder”. I castigated myself for being “weak” and “lazy”. Surely if I just tried harder and put in more effort things would turn out all right.

I did just that.

It didn’t work.

I slowly fell into a protracted depression. Simple tasks became too much for me. My talented direct reports picked up the slack (thank you). On the eve of what could have been the height of my professional career as an Army Officer (taking my soldiers to an operational theater and leading them there) my Commanding Officer (my boss) advised me gently but firmly that I would not have that opportunity. His words remain burned in my memory: “James, in the condition that you are in, I cannot entrust soldiers to your care in an operational theater.”

I had bought into the myth that a leader cannot admit to limitations and it caused a lot of damage.

My work as an Executive and Leadership Coach is informed as much by my failures as my successes. Looking back, I can see how valuable it would have been to have a Coach, a committed and courageous thinking partner who would have “held up a mirror” and helped me to see that my unrealistic expectations and foolish assumptions were combining to create the very situation that I was trying so hard to avoid. Someone who could have helped me to find a way forward before my mental health was affected.

Reader, are you in a situation where you fear that things just might be too much for you? Would it help to have a thinking partner who has been there and will work with you in complete confidence to help you to find your own path forward?  Let’s talk about it!