On a quest for best? Time to give it a rest…
Instead of striving to be perfect, school leaders can achieve far more for themselves and their school by embracing their imperfections and using them as a springboard for growth, advises Marie-Claire Bretherton.
Have you ever been led by a perfect leader? Do you work in a school where the leaders always get it right, 100% of the time? Do you get it right 100% of the time? The truth is that there is no perfect school, no perfect leader and no perfect teacher – we all know that really.
Actually perfectionism is a problem. When we aim for perfection, we are usually driven by a concern about what people around us might think about us. We can find ourselves trapped in a world of comparison. I confess that I sometimes catch myself scrolling through twitter, marvelling at the wise and witty things people seem to be able to cram into 280 characters, and feeling a little ‘less than’ for my poor attempts to contribute to the thread. (How do you write the perfect tweet!?) It’s even worse on Instagram. There are so many perfect houses, perfect gardens, and perfect holidays!
So why is it that we are so uncomfortable with being imperfect? Is it because we see imperfection as a failure? Is it because we feel ashamed of the ways in which we aren’t perfect? Or do we view our mistakes as personal defects in a world of perfect people?
The truth is that we are all imperfect
In our new book, Imperfect Leadership in Action, Steve Munby and I outline 10 characteristics of what we call the 'imperfect leadership mindset'. Ten ways in which leaders who know that they are imperfect, can create strong foundations for personal growth and development, as well as organisational and team success.
It starts with self-awareness. Leaders who know that they are imperfect are open to examine their leadership and explore how they are perceived and received by those they lead. Because they are secure in their ‘imperfect leadership’, they can acknowledge their strengths and their weaknesses, without fear that they have to be good at everything and know everything. Despite this they are restless learners at heart, always seeking to develop and grow. They cultivate curiosity and ask great questions. Their aim is to know more tomorrow than they did today, and to be a better version of themselves tomorrow than they are today.
Because they know their own strengths and weaknesses well, they develop and empower great teams of people around them, people with complimentary skills and strengths. They aren’t threatened by other people’s successes, skills, contributions, and achievements. In fact, they are keenly aware of their responsibility to develop more and more great leaders who can step up and make a difference in our schools and colleges in the future. And what’s more is they don’t need those leaders to be perfect! Instead, they will coach and mentor new and future leaders to help them develop self-awareness and grow as imperfect leaders too.
Imperfect leaders manage their ego well. They have what we describe as a ‘healthy ego’ - not too big, and not too small. No-one wants to be led by someone who is insecure and needs constant reassurance and ego-massages! Neither do we want to be led by someone with an over-inflated ego which leaves little room for others to contribute. Imperfect leaders hold the middle ground with a balance of confidence and humility. They are neither overwhelmed nor overbearing. They are happy to be in the limelight, and to take a back seat.
Leaders who know they are imperfect, are quick to admit their mistakes and even quicker to put things right when they get it wrong. They don’t need to cover up their mistakes and pretend they haven’t happened. They are able to tell it like it is, and say, 'that didn’t work' or 'I’m sorry I got that wrong'. They view mistakes and failures as opportunities for learning and improvement. If we think we have to be perfect all the time, we can find ourselves too scared to make a decision, in case it’s not the perfect decision. Or too scared to try a new approach, in case it doesn’t work absolutely perfectly. Being imperfect means we know that at any given moment all we can do is make the best decision we can, given the information we have at the time.
Imperfect leaders are deeply committed to doing the right thing, and they are authentic. They know themselves well and they have moral purpose. This means they make difficult decisions when needed in order to do the right thing by the children and young people they serve.
Finally, imperfect leaders are quick to ask for help from others. They ask for input, ideas and even encourage others to share opposing opinions or disagree with them. In the words of Headteacher Sue Belton, from KYRA in Lincolnshire 'no school is an island, no leader is enough on their own', and so imperfect leaders reach out and ask others in to support them, challenge them and guide them. They know that they will make better decisions as a result.
Why this matters
We all want to be led by leaders who want to do all they can to make a positive difference to the lives of children and young people; leaders who create a culture where the whole team thrives and succeeds; and leaders who follow through on what they say they’ll do. But we don’t need ‘perfect’ leaders. What we need is more authentic imperfect leaders, who consistently ask, ‘how can I improve?’ and are open enough to hear the answer and act on it. This is the kind of leadership that I think we need more of in our schools and colleges.
For any aspiring leaders reading, we need you! You don’t need to be perfect. In fact, being an imperfect leader will open up a world of learning for you.
In his poem Looking for the Castle, Second Time Around, William Ayot (2012) says that it is time to put away our self-doubt and step forward along the path: “It is time to stop looking upwards at others. What you have is enough. What you are is ready.”
Marie-Claire Bretherton is Director of School Improvement for Anthem, as well as the Education Director for KYRA – a community for teaching, leadership, research, and school improvement partnerships. Her new book: 'Imperfect Leadership in Action: A practical book for school leaders who know they don’t know it all', co-authored with Steve Munby, was published in March 2022 (Crown House Publishing).