There is No Such Thing as an Ideal Leader

cartoon of superhero ladyLooking back, I can now see it for what it was: there was some serious hero-worship going on. At the time, it didn’t really feel that way, because it was my boss. If you would have asked me before “the incident”, I would have said that I was doling out well-deserved respect to my work team leader. And she did deserve it. In all my years, I’ve rarely had the pleasure of working with such a wise and trustworthy leader.

Then, something happened.  There were hurt feelings, shock and disorientation. The particulars aren’t important now, but it created a distinct line in my relationship with my boss: before the incident, I thought she was super-human. Afterwards, I realized she was only human, just like the rest of us.

It’s an important lesson for all of us who aspire to leadership: even the most competent people fall short of expectations. Leaders will disappoint, they’ll make mistakes. Because, like us, they are only human.

Karin Hurt and I talked about this when I interviewed her for her book Overcoming an Imperfect Boss: A Practical Guide to Building a Better Relationship With Your Boss.The humanity of leadership is a key theme in Karin’s book. She says that one of the reasons she wrote the book is to help people understand that leadership isn’t about achieving an unobtainable level of perfection.

In Karin’s words:

Nobody is perfect. You can’t create the ideal leader. We all want leaders who engage us in a compelling vision, have integrity, are authentic, transparent and are kind and fair. The list [of desirable traits] is endless. But at the end of the day, leaders are human beings.

I think that’s very intimidating for somebody who wants to become a leader; they think they have to be so perfect in order to take that leap. And I think it is an important message to get out to folks early in their career: it’s OK to be human.

In the end, my very-human leader did me a huge favor. It’s tough living up to a superhuman standard. Had I not seen that that even the best–of–the–best sometimes do things that cause upset, I may have not been willing to step up to lead when the time came.

Discussion question: what are some ways that we tend to idealize the act of leadership or the role of leaders in our organizations?

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