Perfectly Imperfect Leadership

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Sander A. Flaum

The only thing you can be sure of is that you’re going to make mistakes. How you handle them will largely determine your success as a leader.

Great leaders have feet of clay like the rest of us, but they must have the wisdom to admit their flaws openly and be prepared to make wrongs right, even if it costs them. If a leader can admit mistakes, correct them, and move on, the people he leads become empowered to take risks, make mistakes, admit them, change, and grow.

Leadership is so hard because it flies in the face of proper societal conditioning. We’re taught to believe that people won’t like us if we’re flawed. So admitting one’s mistakes isn’t easy; it takes courage, mixed with a good dose of humility and self-esteem.

The practice of focusing on the notion of principles enables us to admit our mistakes, struggle to make them right, and move forward. When a leader can do that, she will have loyal followers—because it proves that she’s human, just like the rest of us.

There are those times—too many, regrettably—when leaders do not do the right thing. They may make an impulsive decision, without consulting their team. They may decline feedback, embarrass a colleague publicly, or hire an unqualified old friend. These things happen. Something I’ve learned over the years that I’ve tried to pass on to my direct reports at Euro RSCG Becker and now at Flaum Partners, is that you must apologize when you make a mistake (publicly, if necessary) and then take the necessary steps to set things right. I can tell you, this is not a skill that came easily to me, but it’s been one of the most valuable I’ve developed as a company head. It brings humility, humanity, and even flexibility to the process.

If you choose to lead, be assured that you will make mistakes, that you may at many times hurt your own and your organization’s credibility. The good news is that most of the time you will be able to make a correction, even though there may be a penalty attached to it.

Young people today inherently distrust the illusion of perfection. I think it’s probably why so many people are riveted to television programs like Lost or Survivor where bad deeds occur in every show. We are imperfect people working for imperfect institutions—we all know this intuitively. As a leader, if you want people to willingly follow you, you have to be honest about who you are and the mistakes that you make.

The same qualities that make a great business leader apply to our political leaders. Parenthetically, it’s too bad for us that many public leaders do not seem to heed this notion of “doing the right thing.” Clearly, former governor Eliot Spitzer’s Emperor’s Club debacle and David Paterson’s sordid confessions made us wonder about the vulnerability DNA of the people we follow. We may know about their business and social achievements from the media, the Web, and our own circle of colleagues, but how much do we really know about their credibility and integrity? Certainly these notions of ethical leadership are especially timely during this presidential election year.

The question for you, as a leader, is how you manage your own vulnerabilities. I urge you to give it some serious thought.

About The Author(s)

Sander A. Flaum is managing partner, Flaum Partners, Inc., and chairman of the Fordham Leadership Forum, Fordham Graduate School of Business. He is coauthor, with his son Jonathon A. Flaum, of the book The 100-Mile Walk—A Father and Son on a Quest to Find the Essence of Leadership (AMACOM, 2006). Contact him at [email protected].