If you want to be a great leader, embrace your imperfection

In a previous post I shared my thoughts on the characteristics that make for good leaders. If I was to define leadership in one word (well, maybe two) I would say it’s about being a role model. And I wholeheartedly believe that we all have a responsibility to be a role model in everything we do, especially in the workplace. It makes fantastic business sense, creates engaged and empowered individuals that form strong and supportive teams, with a sense of ownership and accountability, efficiency and a shared sense of purpose. 

Early careers are often influenced heavily by the way our more senior colleagues interact with us and with each other, in particular how they deal with adversity and tackle things that don’t go to plan. Exposure to colleagues and leaders who attempt to create the illusion that a) everything always succeeds b) they have no flaws c) need no development and e) have made no mistakes generates a number of potential problems:

Innovation is stifled:  All innovation carries risk: we need exposure to risk to learn how to manage and mitigate it. We need to discuss and acknowledge the potential for failure, so we don’t fear it. Innovation creates opportunity and growth and without embracing the possibility that we may not always succeed we won’t realise the potential opportunities.

Curiosity is suppressed:  Curiosity is a precursor to innovation and, in my view, a key leadership behaviour. You have to accept that things aren’t perfect to be curious about how they could be improved. If you are not curious then you won’t innovate. To bring about innovation we need to create a belief that it is always possible to improve, i.e. we need to nurture curiosity.

Emphasis on personal development is reduced: If we don’t see leaders talking openly about their professional development needs, we won’t create a culture of continuous improvement across our teams.

Individual strengths are overlooked:  It’s wrong to view leaders as people who are experts at everything: good leaders who build a team of people who are strong in the areas they maybe aren’t so adept. Without acknowledging this we may not always appreciate the strengths of the people who help make our teams the sum of its parts rather than the success of an individual.  Good leaders encourage development, but they also appreciate and celebrate the existing strengths of the people around them.

Accountability is avoided: An open discussion of failure is positive for a number of reasons, it helps to support a blame culture, it encourages open and early acknowledgement of errors (so minimises risk) and it encourages people to take accountability and responsibility for their actions and for this to be treated positively.

Past mistakes are repeated: A key factor in realising a new idea or approach is building on where lessons have been learnt in the past and refining and adapting taking account of these. If we create an environment where mistakes are not acknowledged and learnt from, we increase the chances that mistakes will be repeated again and again. If we talk about mistakes, reflect on them and learn from them, we increase the chance of successful innovation.

In my opinion the strongest, most authentic and impactful role models are the ones who acknowledge and show their imperfections. Of course, we should strive for and reward exceptional performance, but we should also embrace the process of learning from the mistakes we make and the times when things don’t go to plan. Leaders who acknowledge their imperfections allow their teams to be more confident, more curious, more innovative and more likely to find the next opportunity for business growth.

Naomi Regan