February 25, 2012

In praise of incomplete leaders

Written by Jennifer Garvey BergerJennifer Garvey Berger

I spoke last month at a Leadership Forum at the Melbourne Business School. In attendance were an interesting blend of senior leaders who wanted to think together about the ways we can grow more complex leaders. I asked them to talk about their own experiences with leaders in their lives and to identify the most important characteristics for a leader right now. The traits were about what you’d expect: leaders should be big picture thinkers and also keep sight of the most important details; they should be thoughtful developing their people and also achieving results; they should have passion and also be measured. And so on. Quickly they came to see that their list was not only daunting—it was probably impossible. This brought to my mind a 2007 Harvard Business Review article I often recommend to the leaders with whom I work. “In praise of the incomplete leader,” by Deborah Ancona, Thomas Malone, Wanda Orlikowski, and Peter Senge, deals with this problem of how much it takes to be a perfect leader in today’s world, and offers a different solution.

Ancona and her colleagues don’t try to tell us how leaders can become more perfect; rather, they tell us, “It’s time to end the myth of the complete leader: the flawless person at the top who’s got it all figured out. In fact, the sooner leaders stop trying to be all things to all people, the better off their organizations will be.” Their point is that by recognizing and admitting to our weaknesses—as well as recognizing and playing to our strengths—we will be more honest with ourselves and others as well as better at building teams. To that end, they suggest that the best leaders have strengths in some (but not all) of the following key areas:

Sensemaking. Leaders who engage in sensemaking notice and think hard about the world around them to create a purposeful map of the context and the people. They are intentionally building and analyzing key frameworks and asking lots of questions.

Relating. Leaders who are good at relating build relationships with individuals and groups both inside and outside their organisations. Ancona and colleagues talk about the three key relating approaches of “inquiring, advocating, and connecting.” In my own work I’d add listening, a skill that research shows is pivotal to relating.

Visioning. Like sensemaking, visioning is about creating a map, but this map is of the way things could be rather than the way things currently are. This map of a compelling future provides the emotional drive for people to work hard to make a difference.

Inventing. About inventing, Ancona and her colleagues say, “This…is what moves a business from the abstract world of ideas to the concrete world of implementation. In fact, inventing is similar to execution, but the label ‘inventing’ emphasizes that this process often requires creativity to help people figure out new ways of working together.”

For me, the key message of the piece is not just in those four leadership capabilities, but in the permission the authors give us to be bad at some of those capabilities—in fact, the certainty with which they tell us we will be bad at some. Then, while they encourage us to strengthen those areas where we’re weak, they also encourage us to build teams so that we are collectively stronger, so that we can actually realize the benefits of our diversity and learn from one another in new ways. If that is what happens when leaders admit their incompleteness, it seems like that would be deserving of great praise indeed.

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