IMPERFECTION. VULNERABILITY. AND KANTIAN IDEALS.
Updated: Aug 15
In anticipation of joining Peter Stiepleman on his Imperfect Leader podcast, I read An Imperfect Leader: Human-Centered Leadership in (After) Action, Peter's ode to leaders' conscious and an appeal to their sensibilities. Like me, Peter is a systems thinker. He wrote the book to help leaders achieve better results by considering the systems they’ve inherited, the systems they’ve created, and the systems they are determined to change. I am one of those leaders.
I have observed many leaders who have failed because they attempted to change the system with the very system that created the need to change it. Paradoxical.
I'M IMPERFECT. I'M AWARE.
When Peter contacted me I assumed he Googled 'Imperfect Leaders' and my name came up. I certainly fit the description. Proudly, I might add. I'm sure there is a pantheon full of current and former colleagues who will validate it. I fully expect to hear from some of them. I hope they will also say that it's my embrace of imperfection that has developed my courage, elevated my compassion, and improved my connection to everyone whose world I touch.
According to Google Books Ngram Viewer, the term imperfect leader has appeared in publications as far back as the turn of the century. The 19th to 20th Century! Frederick Winslow Taylor, the Father of Scientific Management Theory, was focused on imperfection. His improved productivity model was grounded in his philosophy that the imperfection of its leaders, referred to as managers back then, were responsible for industrial inefficiency. Fix the leaders and fix the system. Not a surprise, given the notion of 'The Perfectibility of Man' and its embrace by Progressives in industrial America.
PERFECTIBILITY ISN'T PERFECT
Perfectibility as a notion surfaced long before the rise of the Progressive Movement in America. Its long history can be traced back to the Greek philosophers, filtered through Christianity, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment. In the 1960s, the concept peaked, before its resurgence among the landmarks of the current leadership scenery. The 1950’s post-war economic boom ignited a world of possibilities. Including a moon landing. It was also the beginning of a cultural rebellion and when the shift from the administration management paradigm to leadership first occurred. Leaders were now under a microscope as the stakes and expectations were on the rise.
Imperfection flew in the face of the rhetoric associated with leadership at the time, the expectation was that leaders would be great at everything. Given the war era that preceded it, it's not astonishing that the hero and warrior leader would be celebrated. The problem was it conflicted with imperfection.
The rebirth of the imperfect leader in its current iteration emerged in the 2000s. Attribute it to the work of Peter and others, including Steve Munby, who wrote, “Nobody is ready for leadership. It is always a big step up. Imperfect leadership is neither a set of competencies to be mastered nor a body of knowledge to be memorized. It is a mindset to be embraced.” Munby and Michael Fullan wrote, Imperfect Leadership: A book for leaders who know they don't know it all. Imperfection personified. In The Smartest Person in the Room, I tackle, in short order, the challenge leaders face to be vulnerable. To be human. To be perfectly imperfect.
All of this imperfection reflection led me to Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher and one of the central Enlightenment thinkers. Bringing attention to the need of leaders to acknowledge their vulnerabilities and imperfections is a Kantian concept and rings true today. In Kant’s view, the sole feature that gives an action moral worth is not the outcome that is achieved by the action, but the motive that is behind the action.
Educators who are grounded by a moral purpose will not seek perfection. Instead, they will seek positive outcomes and work towards that end, without ego, adulation, or self-preservation interfering. Paraphrasing Kant, act only according to that maxim by which you believe to be true.
In other words, be yourself. Leaders are bound by the context of their existence. And by their skill sets and experience too. The higher leaders ascend, the more likely they will be exposed if they're imposters. In my three decades of top shelf leadership, I have known many imposters. I've known many "leaders" who undervalued leadership and believed it was overrated as an influencer of people and outcomes. Some of those people have succeeded to rise in the profession despite their disposition, which speaks to our profession and the fact that we are forgiving and seduced by charm and networking. Who you know matters in education.
In other cases. I've known people who eventually legitimized leadership thanks to influencers in their leadership lives. Others needed more time to accept leadership as a concept. In many cases that's been the result of the leaders who have led them in their careers. In some cases, it's immaturity, reluctance, or resistance. Perhaps readers whom this passage speaks to can respond to this blog and share their journey in the interest of informing others.
Allow your personal philosophy and proclivities to guide you. Go where you belong. The truth is, you actually don't have a choice. Anything other than you being you will become evident. While imperfection is commonly thought of as a blemish, in the leadership world it's seen as a sign of vulnerability and a sought-after trait that humanizes leaders. Leadership guru and organizational behavior theorist Edgar Schein has written extensively about the humble leadership paradigm and the importance of humility in the leadership domain.
According to Schein, humble leaders don't shy away from human connection in the workplace but instead see it as an opportunity for growth and success. To be imperfect is to be vulnerable. To be vulnerable is to be humble. It's a birthright for those of us blessed to lead.