What makes an Imperfect Leader? (And are you one too?)
Written by: Lisa Barnwell
Helping leaders to lead effectively through change & uncertainty with transformational coaching tools & techniques
“If you need to be right before you move, you will lose. Speed trumps perfection. Perfection is the enemy of good when it comes to crisis management.”
When I work with leaders as part of one of my coaching programs, one of the biggest shifts many make and benefit from, is the ability to move from a sub conscious, repetitive reaction, to one of a conscious, measured and emotionally connected response; which not only relies on their own thoughts and ideas but those which come from others. In plain English despite their wisdom and experience, leaders like everyone else are human and have an operating system complete with limiting beliefs which will colour their choices and behaviour and have them fear repercussions.
Many of us, leaders included, have been taught to strive for perfection and fear failure, judgment or abandonment. So when Dr Michael Ryan Executive Director: World Health Organisation (WHO) issued the above directive to leaders responding to the coronavirus pandemic in mid March, I found myself thinking: wow, that's going to open a whole can of worms.
Last year after a period of laying low post cancer diagnosis and treatment, when I was re-building and re-branding my business, I thought about a name that would sum up how I was feeling and immediately connect with the clients I was meant to work with. I thought about the clients I had supported in my coaching practice who were brilliant high achievers yet secretly doubted their abilities. The leaders I knew who, regardless of gender, were on a committed path of growth, yet hated to fail. The leaders who were showing up professionally whilst their personal lives left a lot to be desired. And the leaders who shared that they were tired of all the pretence and pressure that trying to be "perfect" was adding, to their already pressured lives.
Creating a business culture that is based around perfection and getting things "right" has seemed a necessity for some industries with many leaders under increasing pressure and scrutiny that is both unhealthy and unsustainable. Banking and Finance spring to mind. The Law too. But surely in all industries we need creative "blue sky" thinking to stay ahead of the curve, and now, during a worldwide pandemic, don't we all need permission to be imperfect and allowed to get things wrong? After all, how can we possibly expect to know all the right answers, when we're in emergent, uncertain and unprecedented times, and no-one has been here before?
Perfectionism isn't simply about trying to do your best. Despite what your teachers may have told you. It may start out as a good intention but pretty quickly it turns into a habitual tendency: to have frequent thoughts about achieving an idealistic standard, alongside a relentless striving to reach a goal that often, when obtained, disappoints rather than delights.
Rather than motivating you to excel and do your best, striving to be perfect is more likely to result in feelings of dissatisfaction and despair; when nothing that you or those around you feels "good enough" and you always feel like you've failed.
I've seen leaders who apply a perfectionist lens to their leadership which not only puts an unrealistic pressure on them but pretty quickly creates a disconnect and detachment from those around them too. We've all had demanding bosses who are never satisfied and in my experience they don't inspire or motivate anyone to raise their game. Instead they nurture feelings of "why bother?" (or maybe that was just me?!).
An imperfect leader on the other hand, embraces a pioneering spirit and brings a sense of fun and play to challenging situations. A bit of a maverick, they show up with curiosity rather than certainty and embark on projects in a co-creative and collaborative way. They treat those around them with respect and value their differences, not needing to compete or control. They aim for power with, not power over others, and show compassion rather than criticism. They are no shrinking violet either and not afraid to tell the truth or speak up when they know potential is being squandered or mistakes are flagrantly being made. Imperfect leaders tend to be positive and progressive; open to possibilities and unlimited potential. They fail fast and have learnt to go with the flow. They trust in themselves but also ask for help. They are emotionally intelligent and acutely self aware, often bringing a gentler feminine energy to the workplace but like a lioness with her cubs, can be ferocious when required!
My transition to becoming an imperfect leader and stepping into being The Imperfect Leader publicly is only quite recent. When I was vulnerable, fragile and in recovery I knew I was imperfect but wasn't yet ready to own my flaws. Now though, I embrace them because they remind me of the journey I've been on and the challenges I've risen to. From my physical scars to my sometimes dodgy memory and inability to recall as quickly as I once could, I now know that being imperfect is also what makes me relatable and allows me to connect. When I speak or share from my heart I feel an integrity and alignment that lights me up, and my is sense others feel that too.
The irony of course with this whole transition is the more I embrace being imperfect, the better I seem to do! The more I open up to my imperfections, the more other leaders around me have too. We've discovered our strengths and eased into leadership in a way that feels expansive, authentic and somehow "lighter". The desire to lead without the pressure of being a one-man or women encyclopedia. COVID-19 has opened many of us up to being more honest and vulnerable and although some leaders have yet to get the memo, many of us are embracing a freedom that comes when we feel allowed to be ourselves. Being an imperfect leader will not mean you show up sloppily - but create the space to show up as you.