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How to Be the Messy Leader Your Employees Want You to Be

It feels like leadership, in general, is a hard job, but leadership during times of change can be particularly difficult. And it seems like putting on a stoic facade is the right thing to do you’re dealing with challenges or trying to make big changes on your team.

But when things are hard — and today they are — what employees want from their leaders is not a brave face, hiding the suffering. They want someone who understands how hard it is for them and can show them the messy road between where they are today and where they are going.

However, while this sounds good, it can also be difficult because people don’t want to show their warts or weaknesses. So here are four tips for becoming a more human, messier leader.

Be Honest with Yourself

First, understand the resistance in yourself to changes, including changing your leadership style. One way is to understand that resistance comes from a place of fear. In the case of being a leader, that fear is of looking incompetent. But feeling fear and insecurity makes us human, and once we can be okay with being afraid of change, we can give ourselves some grace. And once you have some self-awareness of your own fears, you are better able to recognize and validate the possible concerns others may be experiencing as well.

Be Willing to Make Your Mistakes Publicly

Second, you must show your team how hard and how easy it is to change. That is, let the team see the struggle and even the mistakes you make during the change process, whether it’s personal development or the implementation of a new process. The point is to model the messy, real way changes happen in life for your team instead of skipping to the last chapter.

When leaders are open about mistakes that are made and successes, teams not only feel more comfortable with each other, but trust grows between employees over time. People who have been through a lot of change know how hard it is, and they’re looking for someone who understands them.

Be Transparent

Today's leadership culture is very transparent, and leaders who are transparent and honest cultivate a culture that helps employees feel connected and inspired. That’s why transparency is a powerful tool in the hands of an effective leader. Leaders who are transparent with their employees help them understand the decision-making process and can increase buy-in for those decisions. And if you want a culture of leaders at every level, sharing your story of how you arrived at a choice is teaching your team how to be better problem-solvers themselves.

But transparency can also create a secondary side benefit by inspiring creativity from teams by giving them a chance to critique your ideas before they’re put into action, which leads us to tip number four.

Be Willing to Be Held Accountable

Finally, permit your people to hold you accountable. One of the reasons we leaders fail to grow in our positions is because we don’t have enough people challenging us to do better. In fact, our culture of leadership makes it hard and even threatening for the “mere common folk” to point out when their leaders have messed up or are falling short. And our natural self-protection system called cognitive dissonance makes it even harder for us to see it all on our own.

While most of us have learned to receive criticisms from coaches and teachers, most of us never learn how to receive feedback from our peers or subordinates without getting our feelings hurt and egos bruised.

And while not all critiques you receive from people you work with will be valid and actionable, getting feedback from your employees still allows us as leaders to practice two important things.

One, we normalize the practice of getting this feedback, and in turn, it teaches us how to shut down our automatic ego-defense system so that we can process what someone is trying to tell us without feeling triggered. Second, this feedback is fertile ground for sharpening our own social intelligence skills.

For example, if you have someone on the team that says you’re intimidating, but everyone else thinks your behavior is appropriate, you don’t ignore this outlier. Instead, ask yourself how you might shift your tone or approach with this employee to meet them better where they are. Because if your demeanor is off-putting in some way to some people, then your ability to connect and inspire them is greatly reduced.

And here’s the bonus benefit to this last tip: by demonstrating how to receive feedback in constructive ways, you are modeling what a “leading by learning” organization looks like. Plus, your willingness to be vulnerable in this way helps develop psychological safety for everyone.


Becoming a messier leader doesn’t mean you have to be messy all the time but whether you want to admit it or not, leading humans is a messy job. And when things are hard, what employees want from their leaders is not perfection. They want to know that they are not alone. Because today’s leaders don’t need to already be across the finish line, waving everybody in. With a fast-paced, ever-changing world, all we need to be is one to two steps ahead, with a flashlight guiding everyone along the journey.


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