Sunday, May 4, 2008

Be a good leader. Be incomplete. Don't be perfect, don't even try.

There is evidence that the best leaders are distinctly far from perfect and simply incomplete.

Woohoo. When I look at my personal skills, this is the best news I've heard in some time.

An article in the July 2007 volume of the Harvard Business Review caught my attention this past week as I continue my exploration of collaboration and leadership. In Praise of the Incomplete Leader, is the collaborative work of a group of authors MIT that includes Peter Senge, author of the previously cited business classic, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization.

The article resonated with me from the first read of the summary tag line:
No leader is perfect. The best ones don’t try to be—they concentrate on honing their strengths and find others who can make up for their limitations.
The authors state that it is time to stop visualizing the complete leader as a person at the top who has all the answers. They go on to say that leaders shouldn't even try to fill the gap. As they say,
... the sooner leaders stop trying to be all things to all people, the better off their organizations will be. In today’s world, the executive’s job is no longer to command and control but to cultivate and coordinate the actions of others at all levels of the organization. Only when leaders come to see themselves as incomplete—as having both strengths and weaknesses—will they be able to make up for their missing skills by relying on others.
A quick summary of the author's findings suggests that a leader, although incomplete and imperfect, should focus on four essential capabilities:
  • Sensemaking - trying to understand the contexts in which in which an organization and its people operate. Sensemaking is similar to creating a roadmap that the team can follow.
  • Relating - building relationships within and across organizations. Building a community of confidants who can collaborate to solve problems.
  • Visioning - creating a compelling picture of the future. A leader should be able to articulate what the team wants to create.
  • Inventing - developing new ways to achieve the vision. Similar to the innovation skills required of entrepreneurs, this is more about execution than creativity.
These capabilities are very compatible with my principles of Quiet Leadership, i.e. community, vision, learning, and balance. I also couldn't help but relate the findings of this article to a previous HBR article I referenced in What Leaders Really Do where author John Kotter proposed distinct differences between leadership and managment.

Once again, we quiet leaders are going to disappoint people around us who feel that we should have all of the answers. In fact, I shouldn't even try. Instead we should focus on sensemaking, relating, visioning, and inventing.

One final thought for Quiet Leaders
You know how one might struggle in an employment interview when the question is, "What is your biggest weekness?"

The standard recommendation for this response was to either present a weakness that was inconsequential, e.g. I am addicted to brushing my teeth, or present a weakness that you could turn into a positive, e.g. I'm a workaholic.

Well, now quiet leaders have a response.

Hiring manager: "What is your biggest weakness?"

Quiet Leader: "I am imperfect and have given up trying to be perfect. Fortunately, there is research that says that I am a better leader because of it. I forces me to "cultivate and coordinate the actions of others."

Thanks for reading. Please lead quietly and woohoo for imperfection.

June 2008: I humbly ask for your support in the Best Leadership Blogs 2008 competition. Here are the top ten reasons why you should vote for Lead Quietly. Thank you.

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