Leaders who recognize their flaws and seek help with challenges will do better.

Leaders who recognize their flaws and seek help with challenges will do better. We Are / Getty Images

A Personal-Growth Strategy for Effective Leadership

Everyone has weaknesses and character flaws. Leaders who proactively seek help with those challenges will be better executives, managers and colleagues.

Here’s an important question for any government leader, or aspiring leader, to ask themselves: How aware and open am I about my weaknesses, bad habits and character flaws, and how proactive am I about working to fix them?

Maybe you need to be more humble, patient, truthful, grateful, empathetic, direct or courageous. Maybe you need to go to sleep earlier, be more prompt to meetings or be more organized.

Whatever your challenges, you’re in good company: Most of us have many things we can improve about ourselves. When we’re proactive about making those improvements, we not only experience personal growth but we become more effective leaders and managers within our departments and agencies.

Too often, however, we ignore, hide or avoid seeking help for our flaws. It might be our egos in charge, wanting to avoid the pain of acknowledging that our conception of ourselves doesn’t match reality. It might be a misperception that seeking help around a character flaw is a sign of weakness. And for busy executives, it might be that time focused on self-improvement just seems self-indulgent.

The problem with not addressing these challenges is that you end up waiting for life to be your teacher. Yes, setbacks and disappointments will eventually help you learn. But it’s a slow route to growth; being proactive about your personal growth can save heartache, pain and time.

Take the case of Ross, a federal departmental division chief who reported to a deputy assistant secretary named Jennifer. After a few weeks on the job, Ross felt comfortable sharing with Jennifer that he was working on his approach to giving feedback. “My style is blunt,” he explained, “and in past jobs I’ve been perceived as harsh or abrasive. I’m a direct person, but I also want to be empathetic. I want to get that balance right in this new role.”

Jennifer appreciated Ross’s openness. She offered examples from her own career about what worked in striking that balance and gave him some book recommendations. And she periodically checked in with Ross about his progress.

By being open about a personal challenge, Ross increased his chances of improving his feedback style and, more broadly, learning to be more empathetic. He might have taken other steps as well, including seeking out additional coaches, getting feedback from his direct reports and keeping a journal about his progress. 

If Ross hadn’t been so open, it’s less likely his feedback style would have changed. Continued perceptions of harshness might have cut his tenure short in the new job or prevented a promotion, not to mention impacting his team’s effectiveness at executing its mission. Only then, maybe, might he have been willing to admit he needed to change. But that’s a tough way to learn.

So how can you ensure you’re being proactive about your growth? Here are three suggestions, drawing on wisdom from the fields of mindfulness and meditation:

Take time each week to reflect. It doesn’t mean you need to sit quietly in a yoga pose. Self-reflection can also come while, say, taking a walk or talking with loved ones or colleagues. A useful practice is to ask yourself at the end of each week: In what ways did I live up to my values and personal goals, and in what ways did I fall short? In asking those questions, be kind and understanding with yourself, since the goal is openness and learning, not judgment, beratement or frustration.

Acknowledge your weaknesses and character flaws. A useful step is to choose specific virtues or character traits you want to strengthen in yourself. In doing so, you’ll be following in the footsteps of one of America’s first public servants, Benjamin Franklin, who chose 13 virtues and focused on one each week. As Franklin put it, “The wise and brave dares own he was wrong.”

Be proactive about addressing challenges. That means seeing your self-improvement work as a core activity of your leadership role, meaning something you make time for. Being proactive can include reading books or articles, hiring a coach or therapist, or taking classes on mindfulness or meditation. You could also get input from friends or colleagues and ask them to hold you accountable for making progress.

Just as there’s no substitute for perseverance in achieving reforms in government, the same is true for personal growth. What we can hope for, as flawed human beings, is small steps forward that will, eventually, lead to meaningful improvements in our habits and characters. You’ll benefit from that growth, but so will your colleagues and staff who rely on your leadership.

Andrew Feldman is the founder and principal consultant at the Center for Results-Focused Leadership LLC, which helps public agencies use evidence, data and strategy to improve their results.