Ten Failures of a Leader: Perfection is Attainable (#4)

The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning that work of becoming yourself.

Anna Quindlen

It is not easy being a successful leader.  Employees desire and are motivated by different things, resources are scarce, jobs are only becoming more complex, and uncertainty is the norm in our current environment.  A group of leaders I worked with recently summarized the current situation as one in which as “soon as one thing starts to improve, another or even two things start to fall apart.”  I asked the group if it was similar to what I experienced a few years ago.  I had a leak in the sunroom, so I had to put on a new roof.  As soon as the new roof was finished and I thought things would finally be a little calmer, the central air started blowing hot air during a rather hot summer.  By the time I figured out how to balance paying for a new roof with a new central air unit, the car started to make funny sounds.  As I described that summer, the group laughed and said that is exactly how they would describe their day to day existence as a leader.

While working with the same group, the conversation in the afternoon turned to how there is very little margin for error as manager.  One mid-level manager made the comment that the expectation is that she will be perfect all of the time.  Another manager mention how an executive told him “mistakes were ok as long as he made him aware” of the issues, but his experience was that he was punished every time he mentioned anything that went wrong.

The very nature of human life is imperfect.  Although we often talk about the perfect life, job, home, child, or spouse, perfection is a something we strive for and rarely attain.  Likewise, this tendency to view things in two categories (perfect or not) significantly impacts our view of ourselves and those that work for us.  Below are three key things to keep in mind when you feel the tendency to judge events by perfection:

  • Mistakes are part of leading
  • Improvement is a key part of success
  • You have to be realistic

Mistakes are part of leading

When I played more than watched soccer, I learned a lot from a coach that I had.  He would start every game by telling us what we had to do to win, but ended each inspirational speech with the statement “soccer is a game of mistakes; winners make less mistakes than the other guy.”  In many ways, leadership is governed by the same laws of the universe.  No matter how much we grow and commit to excellence, there are going to be things that we do that will not meet expectations.  Several studies have shown that as much as 80 percent of business decisions are made less than optimally for the average manager.  Part of leadership is that you are not always going to make the right decision.  The best you can hope for is to analyze situation, account for all views, consider short and long term outcomes, and make a decision.

Improvement is a key part of success

Like any other skill or ability, experience makes a difference in performance.  Once we become leaders, it is common to look at development as being a nice luxury, but not as necessary as before becoming a leader.  This change in mindset is due to a variety of things, but some of the big ones include the image we have of reaching a position of leadership, adopting a leadership style that we will use, and increasing demands on time as a working leader. There is little assumed need to improve if we feel like leadership is a destination we have reached instead of a journey, we are wed to a single leadership style or approach, and we are just too busy to learn or do anything new.  Everyone in every vocation can learn new things and improve.

You have to be realistic

We all make mistakes and we can accept that in most other facets of our lives. However, when we think of ourselves as leaders, something becomes more threatening when acknowledging failure.  It even becomes common to operate under the myth that somehow failure as a leader calls into question if we should be leader.   In most cases, we learn more from failure than success.  Several years ago I worked with a leader that had assembled an amazing team.  She used relationships and connections to recruit some of the best people in her industry and the team was exceeding peer organizations in almost every category of performance.  Over the course of a year, most of the team left and she wanted to explore why.  As we discussed events, it became evident that she wanted herself and the team to be perfect.  She lost the ability to deal with shortcomings in the team and herself and the team members sought to be led by someone that could help improve the team as well as herself.

Like in most things, perseverance and learning are critical for success.

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