A lot of the world-class examples of what good looks like seem to be almost perfect. And yet, in my experience, the need for perfection is the very thing that all but guarantees you won’t succeed.
This theme came up in conversation with a client this week. She has just landed what some might consider a dream job, leading a major division of a big corporate. While clearly she has to keep all her stakeholders happy, she nevertheless has a high degree of autonomy around how to lead the business.
We sat the other day surveying the landscape of her new territory. The acres of stuff she has to get to grips with if she’s going to succeed.
First, having taken over from a successful predecessor, she has to ensure some kind of steady state on existing performance.
But then, she has an ambitious vision of how it can be different.
And she wonders how she can get people excited about it. “Engaged”.
At the same time as they’re running flat out to keep up with everything they’re already doing.
She has a big, demanding direct reports team. Just giving regular face time to them alone takes half her week.
Are there too many of them? Are they up to the job? Dare she deal with the performance management issues she knows are lurking there that her predecessor didn’t deal with, despite his success?
There’s the org structure too. Is it fit for purpose? Does it help or hinder business growth? How can she get the various bits of the jigsaw puzzle working better together?
Meantime she has a diary that’s running her, rather than her running it. Stuff just seems to get put in. How can she better figure what she should and shouldn’t be turning up for?
Oh yes, and there’s also life beyond work. Her children. Her desire to train for and run a marathon. Longer term desires to do some philanthropic stuff.
“Big agenda,” I said.
That took her to reflecting on how important it was for her to achieve things right across the board. To make her life matter.
“How can I be super-effective across all the important areas of my work and life?” she finally asked.
It was a genuine question. And she looked at me like I might know the answer. But I had another question:
“Can you be?” And…
“What happens if you aren’t?”
She took a deep breath at that point. Like it would be the end of the world. Like she’d somehow have monumentally failed.
Here was my client apparently wanting to be powerful and perfect across a whole range of things. And what we got to right then was the anxiety she felt under as a result. The pressure she was putting on herself to be almost super-human.
I didn’t think of The Velveteen Rabbit in the moment. Where I went instead was the concept of servant leadership, the essence of which is really simple: drop using power and authority as a way to get stuff done; instead put yourself at the service of those you serve – the board, direct reports, employees, customers.
And I’m not talking about this like it’s a neat technique.
I’m talking honest, in your bones stuff.
Come from service.
Robert Greenleaf explains it:
The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…
The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?
But coming from service as a leader requires a particular ingredient. One that many, many leaders struggle with.
See, if you want to lead from a place of service, you have to put a lot of ego away and allow some vulnerability in.
You have to get out of your own head, trying to make sure you look good, to stepping into other people’s shoes and really understanding what’s important to them.
You have to stop being mechanical. Going through all the motions that you think you *should* go through in a senior job. Let down some barriers and embrace some spontaneity.
Like we said last week, fail sometimes.
Acknowledge when you don’t have the answers.
Be honest about where you are emotionally and not like some wind up ra-ra machine.
Stop being so brittle and controlled and allow some softness.
Allow yourself to be okay to be you: imperfect and yet still enacting your vocation to lead.
In brief: you have to be real.
Vulnerability and The Velveteen Rabbit
It was only after I’d finished talking with my client, leaving her with the homework of reading Greenleaf’s book and reflecting on what she made of it in the context of her challenges, that I remembered the story of The Velveteen Rabbit.
If you haven’t read it, or not in a little while, you should have a look. It’s the tale of a toy rabbit given to a child one Christmas.
It has so many take away messages about all things work, business, life, love…
All revolving around this thing about being real.
See, the Rabbit starts off in life all self-conscious, trying to figure his role in the hierarchy of the toy cupboard, concerned about what other toys make of him.
Life in the toy cupboard certainly seems to have its politics. Certain toys thinking they’re more important than others. More real than others. And being disparaging or bullying of other toys as a result.
The mechanical toys were very superior, and looked down upon every one else; they were full of modern ideas, and pretended they were real.
He wonders what it means to be real. He begins to ask himself what the even means. By chance he finds himself under the mentorship of the Skin Horse, an old toy whose seen it all in the toy cupboard, and is unaffected by the shenanigans. Rabbit asks horse what it means to be real.
He said, “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
Life conspires to have Rabbit promoted, however, to being the little boy’s main toy. He ends up being chucked about and loved by the boy so much that he’s no longer in perfect nick. But by then he’s no longer thinking about how pink his ears are, because he no longer cares.
He has served his purpose. He has been an important transitional object in the little boy’s whole growing up.
But the most meaningful thing that happens to Rabbit is that, when the child’s nanny dismisses him as being “just a toy”, the little boy insists that he’s not. And that he’s REAL.
Toy or Real?
And that’s the question I think it’s valuable to ask yourself if you’re in a big leadership job.
Is it just another way to turn up and play out your needs of power and perfection?
Or are you going to be real in it?
As we talked through the long list of my client’s challenges, we looped back to her wish to have everyone excited about her vision. To have them all pulling in her direction.
“If you want to get people behind your vision,” I said, “help them articulate their vision. Of course you’re going to be a co-creator in that process. You’re going to inspire and lead in the conversation. But let your people make it theirs. Then you don’t need to coerce them. And you’ve played your role full-out.”
That’s what I think being real looks like for her.
How will she go about it? Will she? I guess time will tell.
And, look, I know this talks easy and does hard. Which is why the whole Keeping It Real thing is a theme we’re weaving into our business here and will be doing and writing more about. So, for more and for further thoughts make sure you’re signed up for updates.
Meantime, jump on the comments below and let me know what lessons you take from The Velveteen Rabbit.
Picture credit: Eugenio Marongiu