The Power of Imperfect Leadership

We’ve spoken in past weeks about the effect of ego on our ability to lead, or to be an effective human contribution at all.  Because our egos are so present, we live in a culture where mistakes are constantly pointed out as weakness we must avoid or defend when, in fact, they are vitally necessary for several reasons.  Not least of these reasons is that we learn from our mistakes and they’re exactly what allow us to progress.  An environment that attempts staid perfectionism is not fertile ground for any kind of connection or growth.  And I think we’ve established that we need both to build powerhouse teams.

Another reason that mistakes and the admission of them is vitally important is that it takes courage to admit a mistake.  Considering that courage is not the absence of fear, but action in spite of the presence of fear, it’s an incredibly powerful trait to display.  It also makes us vulnerable, which isn’t a comfortable thing to be.  It is, however, powerfully connecting.  Why?  Because none of us is perfect.  Don’t tell anybody!  And because none of us is perfect, we all KNOW it’s only a matter of time before we make a mistake ourselves.  To be in an environment where mistakes are not only safely admitted, but celebrated for the opportunity they present is a recipe for growth and forward movement.

I’ve been reading “The Art of Possibility” by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander.  I’ve been a fan of Benjamin Zander’s for a while now and I find him quite the personality.  As the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, I find the insights he offers into leadership and team making fascinating – especially considering he delivers them with such charisma.  In their book he tells the following story which stood out to me with regards to the above topic:

“I’ll never forget my surprise when the first horn player of the Boston Philharmonic came to me after a performance of one of the most taxing of Mahler’s symphonies in which he had played a magnificent rendition of the incredibly demanding solo horn part.  “I’m sorry,” he said.  For a moment I couldn’t imagine what he was talking about.  I was struck that his whole appearance seemed dejected and apologetic.  Finally I registered that what had caused his deflation was the fact that he had flubbed two admittedly very exposed high notes in the course of one of his big solo passages.  Perhaps his mistake might have seemed an irritant to some in a recording heard over and over again, but in the context of an impassioned performance lasting nearly ninety minutes, it was hardly significant.  In fact, the all-out ardor of his playing that had led to his mistake had been a major contributor to this performance’s extraordinary vitality.
The level of playing of the average orchestral player is much higher than it used to be in Mahler’s day.  So when Mahler wrote difficult passages for particular instruments, like the high-flying “Frère Jacques” tune for solo double bass in the third movement of the First Symphony, he was almost certainly conveying, musically, the sense of vulnerability and risk he saw as an integral part of life.  For the orchestra and the conductor, playing Mahler’s symphonies means taking huge risks with ensemble, expression, and technique.  We will not convey the sense of the music if we are in perfect technical control, so in a sense a very good player has to try harder in these passages than someone for whom they would be a strain, technically.  Stravinsky, a composer whom we tend to think of as rather objective and “cool”, once turned down a bassoon player because he was too good to render the perilous opening to The Rite of Spring.  This heart-stopping moment, conveying the first crack in the cold grip of the Russian winter, can only be truly represented if the player has to strain every fiber of his technical resources to accomplish it.  A bassoon player for whom it was easy would miss the expressive point.  And when told by a violinist that a difficult passage in the violin concerto was virtually unplayable, Stravinsky is supposed to have said: “I don’t want the sound of someone playing this passage, I want the sound of someone trying to play it!”
This attitude is difficult to maintain in our competitive culture where so much attention is given to mistakes and criticism that the voice of the soul is literally interrupted.  The risk the music invites us to take becomes a joyous adventure only when we stretch beyond our known capacities, while gladly affirming that we may fail.  And if we make a mistake, we can mentally raise our arms and say, “How fascinating!” and reroute our attention to the higher purpose at hand.”

– Benjamin Zander (The Art of Possibility)

In his last paragraph above, Benjamin Zander refers to the mental raising of our arms as we say “How fascinating!”.  This is how he suggests we celebrate the mistakes we make as we realise we’ve made them.  Not as something to be hidden and ashamed of, but as something to smile at and move through.  And in that moment, to take ourselves entirely less seriously!

To me, reading that excerpt conveys not only the bliss of recognizing our ability to make mistakes and be vulnerable, but that mistakes are inevitable if we’re to live what we do with passion.  Our mistakes then become attributed to our full commitment to and passion for what it is we’re doing.  Why live half, when you can be fully engaged?  Don’t we all want a team of fully engaged and passionate team players?  If we do, then we must create a space where passionate souls are not interrupted in their flow and are allowed to bring all their individualism to the table. 

Whether it’s in our teams, our businesses or our homes, our imperfections are what make us beautifully us.  They’re what connect us to each other and they’re where growth, humour and learning come from.  If, as leaders, we can create this space by demonstrating these traits ourselves, then we can expect our teams to be more fully and safely engaged with their purpose.

How do you currently feel about your own mistakes and those of others in your team?  What can you do today to lead by example in creating a safe space where mistakes and imperfections are celebrated for the growth and connection opportunities they can be if we frame them correctly.  How can we lighten the load both for ourselves and our teams by seeing the joy in learning rather than the dejection in making an error?

If you’d like to know more about Benjamin Zander, you can watch a few of his videos here:

Leadership in Action – watch Benjamin coax a stellar performance out of a young cellist – “How fascinating!”

Lead by Making Other People Powerful – The conductor of an audience doesn’t make a sound.  He depends for his power on his ability to make other people powerful.

by Christen Killick

March 11th, 2019

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