The Imperfect Leader
The reality of human limitations
Perfection is all around us. Well, at least the chase for it is. Media tell women what the perfect body shape and weight are. Academically, 4.0 is a perfect GPA. A perfect SAT score was 1,600 when I took it, but apparently it is now 2,400.
We are surrounded by the chase for a perfection that actually doesn’t exist. The crazy thing is that all of us know it doesn’t exist. But that hasn’t stopped the chase. Truth be told, we are not chasing perfection as much as we are chasing what seems to be better than what we have. And those who go before us as our leaders must be acutely conscious of this yearning among their followers as well as within themselves.
An Example From Israel
The story of Israel provides a great example. When national leaders came to Samuel to demand a king (1 Sam. 8:5), they spoke as representatives of the people as a whole. A king would make them look like a real nation. A king was someone of stature whom they could brag about when they argued with their friends over whose country was better. Never mind its being a rejection of God (verses 4-7). A king would get them into the top 10 list of nations in Canaanite Quarterly. Most instructive for us is that they spoke out of discontent with the status quo. What was their criticism of Samuel? “You have grown old, and your sons do not walk in your ways” (verse 5).1
The prophet Samuel had become a victim of PLS—perfect leader syndrome—in which any evidence of finitude, mortality, limitedness, or failure to reach the dizzying high ideal provided sufficient basis for a leader’s replacement.
This article is not written in defense of incompetent leadership. It does not advocate for leadership that runs headfirst into sin and then expects an uber helping of grace. It is not written in support of the Aarons who cannot stand up to the wild crowds at the foot of Mount Sinai (see Ex. 32:1-6). But it does acknowledge human failure. In fact, it is written in support of failure. God’s perfect human creation was limited even before Eden.
We were not created omniscient. Because of this, we would either be always spoon-fed, or progress would always depend on our willingness to investigate humanly unexplored ideas, unentered territory. Progress would require the willingness to innovate. Innovation would involve both the excitement of invention and the surprise of discovering that we had sometimes reasoned, argued, or guessed wrong. In this sense, failure is not the enemy of good, finite leadership. Genuine leaders make progress. And progressive leaders—yes, even church leaders—should expect, and be expected, to be imperfect. They might even want to consider seeking imperfection.
Humans and Imperfection
Sadly enough, most humans seem strongly averse to, even terrified about, imperfection. We chase after inflated illusions called perfection, while failing to deal with who and how we are just now. Perhaps it’s related to the simple truths of learning how to be imperfect, how to fail. For while some do manage to accept their failures, true improvement cannot begin until we accept the truth about our present condition.
Ever since Eden, when something goes wrong we have most consistently reacted by immediately looking to place the blame on someone or something besides ourselves. Forefather Adam blamed God and a woman; mother Eve blamed a serpent; and if Mr. Snake hadn’t found himself bereft of his powers of speech, he would undoubtedly have had his own blaming story.
And the tragedy continues today. Leaders and followers, talking heads and the person in the street, blame a range of mute and defenseless snakes, such as the economy or worker morale—anything but the person in the mirror.
My intent here is not to join the blame game by casting my share of blame on anyone or anything else. I’m suggesting a much more optimistic attitude to imperfection. I’m casting a vote for the imperfect leader. For the same God who offers hope for the sinner who faces up to the facts has given us principles that can make our administrative failures a great launching pad for future success.
Harold Myra has said that “failure is the inevitable companion of a large vision.” 2 For Fortune 500 magnates and souls of no grand fortune, this saying provides a major insight. Flipped on its head, the question becomes: “If you are not failing, how large is your vision?” The moral, economic, social, and general implications of such thinking are far-reaching.
People don’t always follow leaders with a large vision. But leaders who create and ultimately achieve a large vision make impact! They make impact not only because they are consistent in sticking to a vision and executing, but also because they fail and are able to continue powerfully in the face of it.
“He who steals must steal no longer,” says Paul to the Ephesians, “but rather
. . .” (Eph. 4:28). The principle is unmistakable. Moral victory does not involve doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result. Powerful leaders must be able to teach their teams what to do at the time of failure.
No one should believe or teach that sinning is inevitable. But outside of the moral sphere, failure is a standard ingredient of finite creatures. Thus, great leaders, individuals who can live healthily with their imperfections, will both expect to fail, and will teach their followers to expect failure themselves.
But failure is not the end of the road. Race car drivers learn how to crash and how to respond when road conditions cause the car to spin. A crash may be a “fail,” but learning how to do it is important. When learning how to parachute, there is not a great margin for failure. However, when a parachute fails, jumpers are taught about the reserve parachute and rolling techniques that may lessen the impact when they reach the ground.
Successes of Failure
When leaders fearlessly fail, several things take place:
- They are able to practice rebound—they are able to understand the process of breakdown and how to come back from it. They can then effectively direct their teams on this process.
- They show that it is a part of the process of progress—achievement doesn’t happen without failure, even though we like to share idealistic stories. The real story is about how to push through the process.
- They create a culture of safety; too often, we work or live in environments in which we fear messing up. If we mess up, we are going to get fired, be blamed, etc. Imperfect leaders who fail and provide the template for pushing through help create a culture in which failure is safe, especially if individuals are taught how to fail.
- If leaders are not aloof and removed from the process, both they and their teams of followers get to see firsthand what works and what doesn’t. Especially in moments of failure and disappointment, being closely connected to each other can significantly solidify relationships and create unity. When failure happens here, it’s sometimes surprisingly easier to brainstorm. It certainly is easier than if individual groups (plebeians and patricians, bosses and workers, masters and servants) set to pointing fingers at each other. It’s easier, together, to craft a new path.
Borrowing from Solomon’s thinking, we may say that two united groups are better than one group versus another (see Eccl. 4:9). It’s easier to move forward with an entire team that pushes in the decided direction. However, if the leader is removed, our most significant coming together may be for meetings, meetings, and more meetings that circle around blame and whose fault it was.
It’s not always possible for the leader to be in the middle of the pack. But the show Undercover Boss well illustrates the perspective gained when this effort is made: a company boss disguises himself/herself and goes to work with “regular” company employees to experience daily work life and to see what their concerns and issues are. This is often a critically revealing experience for the boss.
Imperfect Church Leadership
The peculiar challenge of church leaders is that they occupy a place of spiritual authority. Here there is an expectation of perfection. It is one with which I have lived. For pastors and their families are generally expected to be perfect. As a pastor’s son I would hear the phrase again and again, wheeled like a whipping stick. It was guilt laid on thick and gooey, like syrup on pancakes. Church members felt it was their right to remind me: “You should know better . . . You’re the pastor’s kid . . . Pastors’ kids shouldn’t do that . . . Pastors’ kids are always . . . !”
I’m not bitter about it at all (if this wasn’t the Adventist Review, I would insert a smiley face here). I get it. As I indicated at the outset, I am no advocate for slackness. But the expectations of perfection placed on so many poor pastors’ kids, and on their pastoral parents as well, illustrate the unreasonable challenges set before leaders who are required to be perfect.
Leaders who must only make “right” and “perfect” decisions are already doomed leaders, whether the expectation is something they have placed upon themselves or is the unrealistic projection of their followers. When leaders begin to hesitate on making decisions for fear of failing or offending, it can severely cripple what they can do.
Yes, we live in a culture that creates structures of perfection or facades of perfection. But somewhere underneath we all want to know that we can fail and get back up again. So, strangely, if a leader understands failure, how to fail and how to create an atmosphere of innovation, it allows teams/members to relax and move forward.
As an imperfect leader you may (1) choose results, aiming for a specific result while knowing that on the way there will be some spills. But spills do not mean the road has ended.
You may (2) choose growth, realizing that at the end of the journey you are going to be better than when you started. The spills, the bumps, the bruises, all contribute to your growth. It’s like shredding muscle so the new muscle, the bigger muscle, the stronger muscle, can take its place.
You may (3) accept the process of learning: you understand that you don’t know everything yet. Failure is simply helping you to know more, to understand more, to experience things that you may not have experienced as yet. This all equals great new learning.
You may (4) choose to realize that your journey is unique; but the successful journeys of others are there as guidance. You may look at what others have done and realize that they have failed four times to your seven. This doesn’t mean that you have ultimately failed. It simply means that you have a different journey, even though the results may be similar, or the finish line may be at the same location. You have a different shoe size, a different gait, a different way to do it. It’s yours. Own it! Every part of it.
As an imperfect leader, prepare for the possibility of failure: go in knowing that failure may happen. If it does, you have already determined that you will not quit. If your tire has a flat driving down a road of nails, make sure you have a couple of spares. If you use up the spares, have great walking shoes. If the walking shoes wear out, be ready to embrace a little bit of pain. But don’t give up. Know your next move.
Finally, as an imperfect leader, seek the One who alone is sinless. Paradox above all paradox, you may rest secure in His perfection, and claim it as yours. Remember, through every moment of your striving, that in Him you are always complete (Col. 2:10).
- Except otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.