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Finally, Realistic Expectations for Leaders


02Sep 2007

I am excited. I finally have come across an article on leadership that doesn’t expect every leader to “have the intellectual capacity to make sense of unfathomably complex issues, the imaginative powers to paint a vision of the future that generates everyone’s enthusiasm, the operational know-how to translate strategy into concrete plans, and the interpersonal skills to foster commitment to undertakings that could cost people’s jobs should they fail.”  That is, we no longer have to be (or look for) Superman/Superwoman.

In Praise of the Incomplete Leader is a refreshing look at leaders.  It is a collaborative article by Deborah Ancona, Thomas Malone, Wnada Orlikowski and Peter Senge, all of whom are professors at the MIT Sloan School of Management.  The article is in the February 2007 Harvard Business Review and I came upon it while killing some time in the library.

Although the authors propose four key characteristics of leaders, I love their perspective and balance.  “No one person could possibly stay on top of everything. But the myth of the complete leader (and the attendant fear of appearing incompetent) makes many executives try to do just that, exhausting themselves and damaging their organizations in the process.”  Thank you!

Or how about this:  “Only when leaders come to see themselves as incomplete — as having both strengths and weaknesses — will they be able to make up for their missing skills by relying on others.”  The groundedness of their position in reality is wonderfully refreshing.

And I love their differentiation between incomplete leaders and incompetent leaders.  “Incomplete leaders differ from incompetent leaders in that they understand what they’re good at and what they’re not and have good judgment about how they can work with others to build on their strengths and offset their limitations.”  Which ties into what B. George, P. Sims, A. McLean and D. Mayer state in another HBR article (“Discovering Your Authentic Leadership”) — that their research found self-awareness to be one of the core qualities of good leaders. In essence, as Ancona et al admit in the incomplete leader article: “No leader is perfect.  The best ones don’t try to be — they concentrate on honing their strengths and find others who can make up for their limitations.”

The four capabilities they propose need to be balanced in a leader are:  sensemaking (making sense of the world around us); relating (building relationships within and across organizations); visioning (creating a compelling picture of the future); and inventing (developing new ways to achieve the vision).  And, rather than being silo-driven in their approach (i.e. that each capability exists by itself), they emphasize the holistic nature of the abilities.  “Sensemaking, relating, visioning, and inventing are interdependent.  Without sensemaking, there’s no common view of reality from which to start.  Without relating, people work in isolation, or, worse, strive toward different aims.  Without visioning, there’s no shared direction.  And without inventing, a vision remains illusory.”

But what I really love is their realistic approach. “No one leader, however, will excel at all four capabilities in equal measure.  Typically, leaders are strong in one or two capabilities. . . Once leaders diagnose their own capabilities, identifying their unique set of strengths and weaknesses, they must search for others who can provide the things they’re missing.”

And I applaud their conclusion:  “It’s time to celebrate the incomplete — that is, human — leader.”  Yes! Let’s be a bit easier on our bosses (and ourselves).

Have a great Labor Day and rest of the week.

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