Blogger Lien Bragg argues for taking leaders – including ourselves – off the pedestal, because it’s in humility and vulnerability that leaders truly shine.
And We All Fall Down. . .
Several years ago, I walked into a hair salon where a poster of newly elected President Barak Obama’s face was haloed in a ray of sunlight while his eyes gazed toward the heavens. Similar to the ubiquitous images of Jesus shrouded in sunbeams and clouds, the poster seemed to reflect America’s hope that our nation’s leader was also our newly chosen savior. Immediately, I knew President Obama was in trouble.
I remember thinking how dangerous it is to place a president, or any leader, on a pedestal because Barak Obama is like all of us – human. In our unrealistic demand for perfect leaders, we expect them to possess superhuman qualities and to perform supernatural acts. Yet, we discover our perfect leaders, like the rest of us, have questionable pasts, make errors in judgment, fail morally, and struggle with personal issues. In my personal experience, I’ve found it unsettling even to discover a leader has minor imperfections: a modest temper, a moody day, a blind spot on some issue.
We set leaders and ourselves up for failure because perfection is a myth. No human or leader is perfect. Yet, we still persist searching for the perfect leader only to be disappointed time and time again when they do not meet our lofty expectations. Our perfect leaders are expected to be super heroes but even kryptonite made Superman weak.
Merriam-Webster defines imperfect as “having mistakes or problems.” Other synonyms are flawed, inferior, broken, damaged and second rate. Who wants an imperfect leader? I do.
And Then We Rise. . .
Early in my career, I was the Chief of Staff to a University Provost. I negotiated access to the Provost and any issue brought to her attention. I, as opposed to her Associate Provosts or Deans, served in her stead on countless occasions and functioned as a professional as well as personal advisor. My relationship with the Provost granted me “power by proxy,” where even tenured faculty with years of hard won experience and credibility were deferential towards me.
Eventually, my record of success as the Provost’s Chief of Staff evolved into arrogance and hubris. My over-inflated ego led me to demand privileges I felt entitled to as a result of our Office’s achievements and popularity. This abuse of power resulted in resentment and disdain among colleagues across the University. Eventually the power dynamic shifted as a university political drama erupted, calling my character and credibility into question. Ultimately, the situation culminated with me making a quick transition to corporate America, after sensing an imminent end to my tenure at the university.
For a long time, I believed status, prestige and position equaled power. I wanted to be a “leader” for the wrong reasons, and my leadership style encompassed the wrong methods. As a result of this extremely humiliating yet transformative, personal failure, my definition of a “leader” and why or how I lead is vastly different.
I learned that leadership is not about what you do, but who you are. And, that it is in our brokenness and through our failures where we surrender our pride, ask for help and open to growth. Confronting core character flaws helps develop the humility we need to be a fuller and more useful person as well as leader. As we have witnessed, hubris is the hallmark and eventual downfall of many leaders.
People often credit their worst failures and tragedies as their best life teachers. If conquering our adversities and personal defects help strengthen our character, why are we not talking and learning more about our weaknesses and imperfections as leaders? We do need strong, courageous leaders who we trust and who inspire confidence, but we must remember that they, too, are flawed humans.
In Crucibles of Leadership, Warren Bennis and Robert J. Thomas reason that genuine leadership is a mix of “hardiness, perseverance and toughness,” which enables people to overcome adversity. Adversity and failure can strengthen us, if we learn from it. The meaning we make from the weak points in our life and character stretches us to be self-reflective as well as self-correcting. We gain a better understanding of our limitations, our capacity and ourselves. Our trials and tribulations help develop the characteristics essential to leadership – humility, grace and wisdom – universal and timeless qualities we are magnetically drawn to in the people and leaders we seek in our lives.
Dr. Brene Brown’s TED Talk on “The Power of Vulnerability” describes how vulnerability transforms us into “wholehearted people that have the courage to be imperfect.” Many people consider vulnerability a weakness. Yet, vulnerability resonates with people because it connects us with others. And connection is a necessary component of effective leadership. The leader who says, “I do not know, I am uncertain or I am not all that you think I am” demonstrates vulnerability. Leaders who look perfect but courageously admit their flaws and imperfections allow us to be imperfect. It inspires us to know that we, too, can be great leaders even if we are perfectly imperfect.
“For my strength is made perfect in weakness.” – 2 Corinthians 12:9.
H. Lien Bragg is a senior director with the Casey Family Foundation and a doctoral student with the Center for Values-Driven Leadership.