We strive for perfection. The perfect job. The perfect appearance. The perfect home. The perfect partner. The perfect family. The perfect leader.
If it’s not perfect, you think there’s something wrong and you search for the better version of it. The more perfect one. You find a better job, a better boss, a better home, a better partner. One you hope will be more perfect.
When a leader shows imperfection, the pedestal on which we put them shatters into small little pieces. We’re disappointed. We think we made a mistake to follow them or heed their advice.
From a young age, we are taught that to succeed you need to be perfect. All our role models are dressed perfectly and behaves perfectly. Being wrong and making mistakes result in failure. And the consequence of failure is being excluded – the absolute worst thing you can possibly do to a human being. In fact, isolation is used as the worst form of punishment in prisons.
Leaders don’t make mistakes. Leaders are supposed to be perfect.
Understandably, we’ve created an obsession with being perfect. At least, I have for a very long time. We want to get it right, the first time. We’re scared to put ourselves out there because we’re not perfect yet. We’re scared to ask for help because what if people think we’re not perfect? That we can’t do it ourselves? That we don’t know all the answers?
The art of precious scars
Yet, it’s the messiness and imperfections that make something special. It’s your ability to repair that really bonds you to others. And those bonds keeps you connected and makes you feel included. It’s when we’re willing to show our scars that you become the golden glue that bonds teams and organizations together. It’s when you’re willing to be imperfect that you become the perfect leader.
The Japanese understand this. Kintsugi – translated to golden joinery – is the art of fixing broken pottery. Where most people in modern culture tends to throw away or hide broken objects, the Japanese believes it adds to the value of the object and displays it with pride.
With Kintsugi, glue is mixed with powdered gold to emphasise the cracks on a broken object. It enhances the beauty and uniqueness of the object. Read more about kintsugi here.
People, similarly, become more beautiful and unique and inspirational when they’ve healed their perceived brokenness. People become better leaders when they stop waiting to be perfect. In fact, the most inspiring leaders are those willing to share their scars.
We admire Nelson Mandela, the angry rebel and freedom fighter, who turned into a soft and wise world leader after decades of imprisonment. We love Sir Richard Branson – the shy little boy pushed out of his comfort zone by his mother, who once left him at the side of the road to find his own way home – who turned into a controversial rule-breaker and risk taker to became an inspirational business leader and visionary respected by all. J.K. Rowling inspires us with her story of turning her struggle while on welfare into an international hit with her Harry Potter series. Oprah Winfrey was doomed to be a servant, yet managed to break free from this culture-induced prison sentence to become one of the most influential women in the world.
The very reason why these world leaders are so loved and respected – and perfect – is not because they don’t make mistakes, but because they managed to turn their struggles into successes. Their failures inspire us and give us hope.
Perfecting being imperfect
When I started seeing the imperfections in the leaders I admire:
- I gained more respect for them.
- They became more human and their successes more achievable.
- They gave me hope. They made me believe it’s possible to change no matter where I come from or what my race or skin colour or sex or financial status is.
- I felt more understood. I understood myself better.
- I believed their advice more readily. And that drove me to action.
Inspired, I stopped trying to be so perfect and gave imperfection a try. I made many mistakes and burned many bridges in the process. But I gained more than what I lost.
- I feel freer.
- I feel less pressure to constantly achieve which makes me more approachable.
- It is easier to forgive others.
- It is easier to try something different, increasing my probability to succeed.
- I give better advice, advice that people can relate to more.
- People respect me more.
- I am more open to receiving feedback.
- I am less critical in my feedback to others.
- It keeps me humble.
- It makes me want to be better.
- I appreciate others more.
By allowing myself to be imperfect, I became a better leader.
To become the perfect leader, learn to fail graciously. Stop trying to be perfect. Demonstrate failure. Teach people how to correct their mistakes rather than attempting to hide it.
Make the mistake but keep the lesson. Let go of the guilt, shame and blame. By demonstrating how to turn struggle into success, you inspire people to become better leaders themselves and that makes you the perfect leader.