Wanted: Leaders Who Are Flawed And Know It

We all know no one is perfect, and yet so much of organizational life revolves around the pretense that the humans in leadership are pretty close to flawless—and whatever flaws they have, they are supposed to cover up, rationalize and deny. While Donald Trump is in many ways the most extreme—and scary—current example of this kind of leadership, he’s certainly not alone.

We Are All Vulnerable to the Fiction of the Infallible Leader

It seems like the human condition is either hoping for the infallible leader to come and rescue us or being on the pedestal ourselves and ignoring our own flaws or rationalizing them away. Every world religion and good number of moral philosophers address (and in their own ways, reinforce) this essential challenge of human experience.

Should we give up hope? There’s a beautiful line from Leonard Cohen that moves me from resignation to hope:

“There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in. That’s how the light gets in.”
— Leonard Cohen

I think leaders in every organization need to remember this deep truth of our common humanity. The flaws—the cracks in everything—are how the light of insight, growth and learning get in. It’s true in us as individuals and it’s true of organizations. When we are in denial about our flaws, we shut down learning. When we rationalize our failings, we stymie insight. When we are in pretense about our own faults, we are telling others that the lie is better than the truth.

What Happens When Leaders Fail to Acknowledge Their Own Flaws

But, here’s the real kicker. As it turns out, my flaws are someone else’s strengths. My blind spots are someone else’s 20/20 vision. My failure is someone else’s opportunity to be wise, compassionate, and resourceful. When leaders fail to acknowledge their flaws, they are actually not only diminishing their own capacity for learning, growth, and achievement they are undermining their organization’s capacity for learning, growth, and achievement too.

The world is complicated. We are facing big challenges. We need more leaders who are flawed and know it. And it starts with us. We need to embrace the challenge ourselves and become this kind of leader—authentic, human, talented, and flawed. That is how the light gets in.