To Be an Authentic Leader, Be an Imperfect Leader

Leadership Focus

To Be an  Authentic Leader, Be an Imperfect Leader

“They say that nobody is perfect. Then they tell you practice makes perfect. I wish they'd make up their minds!” Basketball great Wilt Chamberlain

Perfection truly is a moving, ever changing target, it is not a fixed goal. Certainly, at VIM Executive Coaching we have encountered our fair share of clients who start their first coaching session by saying, “My goal is to be the perfect leader.” That is a very tall order, and speaking of tall, Wilt Chamberlain really understood the dilemma.

Nobody is perfect. We all know that. Whether we look to sports, or the Arts, to medicine or government, we can take the greatest leader we can imagine and see them for some of the mistakes they have made. It is said that in the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam that mixed in with some of the works of absolute genius, are paintings of sheer disappointment. The greatest quarterbacks of all time have also had awful games, and who can’t recall products rolled out by huge corporations that were downright awful? If we accept that nobody on this earth is perfect and no leader – especially, is without her or his flaws, we have a good place to start.

Practice does not make us perfect. I hate to say that, but it is true. Even Wilt Chamberlain understood that. He could practice his jump shot for an hour a day and maybe make 498 out of 500 shots, but he knew he would miss a few, especially in games. He would always be imperfect. However, he did know that practice would make him better and that is the goal.

Catherine, Gayle and Emily

Since most of us have no chance of ever getting into the NBA, let me move our discussion from the basketball court to a large public accounting firm.

Gayle is a senior manager at a large accounting firm. She has never been to an executive coaching session but she has read a few popular books on leadership. She forgets whether it was a book about how to be a two, three or ten-minute manager, but she has practically memorized its “7 Surefire Principles.” Catherine and Emily have had a long-term feud that has lately affected their work, and has trickled down to their respective teams. They are both valuable employees but have decidedly different personalities.

Catherine was a collegiate athlete (not WNBA caliber, but very good). She can be bossy argumentative and even “in your face” at times, but at heart she is very supportive of her team. Emily was a violinist and writer in college. She is reflective and can almost be seen as passive, but others have noticed she can also be passive-aggressive. In their bickering, there has been a lot of sniping and undermining of one department toward another.

Gayle has called Catherine and Emily into her office at first together, then separately. Unfortunately, the talks did not work. Catherine asked for a transfer to another department after Gayle angrily reacted to something she said, and Emily only grew sullener after Gayle said she was overly sensitive to criticism. So much for the three-minute manager.

In truth, perfection cannot be found in a book. It can only be approached, but not completely reached, in practice. Wilt Chamberlain knew it and Gayle has since learned it. It is why VIM Executive Coaching teaches many techniques that enable leaders to respond to workplace challenges rather than react to them.

In terms of a stock answer or technique to addressing an employee conflict, it is very difficult to have a “one-size-fits-all” reaction.Different situations require different responses. In listening to what an employee is saying, in attempting to be authentic and in the moment, understand that you are dealing with real people having real problems. It is never a simple textbook example. One answer will never be the perfect answer, but it may lead to greater understanding and compromise.

“Perfect” is a nice enough concept but to really be authentic is to understand that we are all imperfect. It is our imperfections and willingness to understand our flaws that make us truly great. There is another wonderful quote that leaders should embrace when helping to retain a wonderful employee. It is from ancient China: “Far better to have a brilliant diamond with a tiny bubble than a perfectly smooth pebble.”


VIM: - noun: lively or energetic spirit; enthusiasm; vitality