The headline for this article is a quotation from Oscar Wilde. He no doubt intended it to be witty, but he was on to something, and it has direct relevance for business and those in leadership positions.
We’ve all met social climbers, the kind of people who seeks to climb the societal hierarchy, often by pretending to be things they’re not. I suspect Wilde was addressing this particularly noxious breed of person with his pithy remark, although he is perhaps more charitable about it than I am. Such people are, in a word, imposters; and most will agree that if you exaggerate your status, position, wealth or accomplishments, you’re engaged in a type of deception. What usually happens is that others smell the deception, and the result for the social climber is the very opposite of what they seek – they are cast out.
I’ve seen the same thing happen in business, and while the motivations are perhaps less troubling, the results are not. Consider the CEO of a private company, whose financial literacy just isn’t great; or the manager of a large fund, who who struggles with written communications. If these individuals operate in highly competitive sectors, they may succumb to the pressure to pretend to have financial skills they lack, or come up with convenient excuses to avoid email and other efficient means of communication to hide what they perceive to be gaps.
This presents two problems: First, it fosters a self-defeating and wildly inaccurate sense of inadequacy. The CEO of a successful business shouldn’t feel insecure about lacking certain competencies, even if many of their peers possess that skill, and the reason is simple: If you’re the head of an empire, you are in fact talented, and that talent is what enabled your success. Second, it shuts down important opportunities for collaboration. If you’re busy pretending that you’re a financial genius when you’re really not, or you’re hiding the fact that you lack a certain competency, then you shut down opportunities for working with those who have the very skills you lack. It can prevent the formation of real dream teams.
I’m a talented individual in certain domains, but there are many areas where I’m just not any good. I’ve built my entire business around the things I’m good at, leaving out the bits where I’m not skilled. There are skills that are needed in my business that I completely lack . . . and that tells me whom I hire. And when I do hire those people, I make sure they’re much smarter than me in those domains.
We’d all be well-served to heed Oscar Wilde’s advice: Just be yourself, for that is surely enough.