by Li Jiang, Maryam Kouchaki, and Leslie K. John
In the late 1980s, Canon ran a commercial with professional tennis player Andre Agassi that launched an infamous slogan: Image Is Everything. For many years leaders of all respects have embraced that sentiment, doing everything they could to come across as powerful, strong, and flawless. Yet, recent research has found that effective leadership isn’t about always being perfect, but about being genuine. When followers believe their leaders are acting as their authentic selves, they experience greater well-being, trust the organization more, perform better, work harder, and make more ethical decisions.
However, breaking out of the “Image Is Everything” mindset is difficult, and leaders often struggle to come across as authentic. Our research finds that one reason leaders struggle is because they frequently choose to present their strengths and intentionally avoid disclosing their weaknesses. We saw this play out in a pilot study when we asked leaders in various organizations to write how they would introduce themselves to prospective workers. Most leaders only revealed their strengths. Rarely did anyone mention their weaknesses, mostly likely worried that sharing weakness would damage their image.
In contrast, our research shows that leaders’ self-disclosure of weaknesses can foster perceptions of authenticity, meaning that many leaders miss an opportunity to develop rapport with their workers when they choose to exclusively talk about their strengths. We found that disclosing weaknesses increased perceived authenticity for both male and female leaders, garnering benefits regardless of gender. In addition, the higher the status of the discloser, the stronger the positive outcomes were. It matters not only that you share your true self, but that you do so when you have a lot at stake.
As an initial test of this idea, we conducted a series of vignette studies in which we experimentally varied whether the leader did or didn’t disclose a weakness, such as being bad at public speaking or struggling to keep up with current technologies. Consistently, our results showed that when leaders disclosed their weaknesses, they were perceived as more authentic but no less competent or warm. Sharing flaws, therefore, resulted in benefits with no apparent drawbacks. Importantly though, we are not saying that leaders should always share their deepest and darkest secrets. We found that these benefits of self-disclosure of weaknesses were restricted to relatable human foibles — they did not hold for disclosure of serious flaws, such as having a panic attack in a speech. And they probably don’t hold for transgressions, such as being rude to an employee or behaving unethically.
To see how sharing weaknesses works for leaders in a more realistic setting, we asked a Google executive to give a speech and disclose a weakness to prospective employees. We recorded his speech and then edited the video to generate two clips: in the experimental condition we included the self-disclosed weakness, and in the control condition we omitted it. We then randomly assigned working professionals to watch one of the two clips and evaluate the authenticity of the executive. When the executive disclosed a weakness, the workers believed he was more authentic, even after controlling for perceived competence and warmth.
We then in a subsequent study asked how people think about the discloser’s motives in giving the speech, people who saw the speech that didn’t include a personal weakness thought the leader was motivated by strategic self-presentation — he wanted to come out of the speech looking great. Those who came across the speech that did reveal a personal weakness, however, inferred that the executive didn’t filter out information, was not acting strategically, and therefore was authentic.
Importantly, simply exposing a weakness isn’t enough to make a leader seem authentic: they must disclose that weakness voluntarily. When making inferences about a person, observers take intentions into account. So, if a leader shares a weakness because they’re required to or got “caught,” the intention is muddied.
From prior work, we know that people frequently guess at what motivates others’ behavior and make judgments based on those guesses. And in subsequent studies, we learned that prospective employees were more interested in continuing to work with their manager and transferred more money to the manager in a trust game when that manager disclosed a weakness, telling us that authenticity earns cooperation.
Moving forward, we hope leaders come to appreciate that it can sometimes be beneficial to shift their mindset from “Image Is Everything” to “Authenticity Is King.” Trying to keep a perfect, strong image can lead others to believe you’re only showing a narrow “sample” of your true self. Opening yourself to the vulnerability of sharing human, relatable flaws instead leads people to see you as an honest and trustworthy leader.
Summary. Leaders often struggle to come across as authentic. New research finds that one reason is they frequently choose to present their strengths and intentionally avoid disclosing their weaknesses. A team of researchers asked leaders in various organizations to write how they would introduce themselves to prospective workers. Most leaders only revealed their strengths. This is a mistake. Revealing personal foibles — as long as they are not serious personal shortcomings — makes leaders come across as authentic and generates good will and trust.