This is the second and final installment of a guest post by Naveed Ghannad, our Director of Insight Development here at the Ghannad Group. I hope you learn as much from reading it as I did, and please look forward to my regularly scheduled blog post in two week's time. Enjoy!
If you'd prefer to skip to The Bottom Line, please scroll all the way down. Otherwise, I hope you enjoy the entire post.
I know that I promised that we would be back to our regularly schedule blog posts this week, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was still a bit more to elaborate on regarding the topic of my previous post, i.e. “How Not to Be a Leader.” If you haven’t already, I recommend that you read that post before this one, because this is a direct continuation under the assumption that readers are familiar with the ideas discussed previously. With that said, this is intended to be more of an addendum to my previous post, rather than the second part in earnest, and so it will (hopefully) be a slightly more focused treatment of a few more elements of not being a leader. Without further ado, let’s get into it.
While we circumscribed the interplay between the ideal leader and stereotypical boss in the previous post, this time I want to get at what I believe lies at the very heart of the tension between these two ideals, and that is the paradox of perfection and all it entails in the realm of leadership. This paradox, and how it is understood or misunderstood, forms the basis for both the potential dysfunction of mere bosses and the unlimited potential for leaders to bring about success and fulfillment in those who look to them for guidance. So, I figure if we want to get at the heart of this issue, we should start outside and work our way in, beginning with how bosses and leaders approach the concept of blame.
Because a boss’ methods need not coincide with their personal behavior, they exercise the right to blame anything and everything when things go wrong, and, although those being managed by the boss might cast aspersions their way, they do so with the implicit understanding that this kind of dysfunction is “baked in” and their grumbling is all part of the game anyway. On the face of it, there doesn’t seem to be anything necessarily untoward about this arrangement, but if we explore the roots of this tendency to shun any type of blame for anything, we can see that it is not so innocent or harmless.
The key to a boss’ influence, as mentioned before, lies in their position somewhere high on whatever hierarchy exists, and in the threat of force they are authorized to leverage against those who refuse to comply with their demands. It comes down to the boss saying, “Do as I say, or else…” A parent might say, “Eat your vegetables, or else you won’t get dessert,” or a shift manager might say, “Don’t miss any more days of work, or you will be fired.” Again, this is not a bad thing in itself, but it is very liable to misuse. More importantly, a boss’ power to influence is predicated on appearance, namely the appearance of legitimacy and the appearance of strength, and both of these are undermined, in the boss’ mind, by the presence of imperfection.
So, the reason a boss resorts to blame is because it is a tactic for self-preservation. The logic goes something as follows. A boss is only authorized to use force or the threat of force because of their position in the hierarchy, so they must be perceived to be “better” than those lower on the hierarchy. If they are perceived to be “inferior” to those lower on the hierarchy than they are, then their legitimacy goes out the window and so does their claim to authority or exclusive use of force and the threat of force. Likewise, the threat of force is only effective if the boss authorized to use it is seen as strong—willing and able to powerfully use it against those who step out of line—and so any appearance of weakness is a chink in the armor that they use to ensure compliance. Without blaming and finding fault with others to deflect from their own perceived inadequacy or imperfection, the entire operation of “being in charge” crumbles to the ground.
Of course, the irony here is that the more one blames and finds fault with others and with the situation, the more one belies any sense of inner strength. This is because blaming things outside of oneself is inherently disempowering; it places one entirely at the mercy of the actions of other people and renders one a perpetual victim of the vagaries of fickle circumstance. It takes whatever agency we do possess and places it in people and objects beyond our influence, and then rails impotently at them for being the way that they shouldn’t be. (And, of course, we all know that when we say something “shouldn’t be” a certain way, what we are really saying is, “It is this way, I am in denial of that fact, and I am choosing ineffectively engage with reality, thus ensuring things will stay the way they are indefinitely.”). By blaming, we unconsciously affirm that we are simultaneously the weakest element in the situation, because we have given up control to everything and everyone within it, while at the same time insisting that we are the primary victim in the situation. This amounts to us saying, “I’m not the One, but it’s all about me,” which you may recognize as the existential motto of a child—although at least the child is justified in being childish. The end result of this constant blaming is that, as our sphere of concern grows ever larger, our sphere of influence shrinks into a singularity.
The cumulative effect of this tendency to blame others for anything that goes wrong is a gnawing sense of weakness that grows and grows inside of oneself until one becomes paranoid that it has become obvious to others. And the logical response to a feeling of impotence is being driven by a need to appear strong so as to compensate. There are about four ways to do this beyond simply deflecting criticism, and they are all about as pathological as it gets when it comes to leadership. These four ways are: ingratiating oneself to those who are obliged to only sing one’s praises, antagonizing those weaker than oneself to feel a sense of power over others, silencing any reminders of one’s own impotence and concomitant shame, and attempting to appear perfect while condemning any imperfection in anyone else. One may recognize this strategy as something right out of Despotism 101, but you might be surprised at how easily some of these behaviors fly under the radar with those who confuse being a boss with being a leader.
While bosses thus rightly see accepting blame as a threat to their ability to fulfill their function, leaders understand their relationship with blame to be the opposite. Bosses see blame as admitting vulnerability, and they see vulnerability as weakness, whereas leaders understand that the courage to be vulnerable is in fact one of their greatest strengths. This is because being vulnerable takes great conviction and security in one’s own inner strength in the face of external obstacles or perceived threats. Rather than surrendering one’s agency to the external situation, by having the courage to be vulnerable, the leader affirms that they alone are in control of their actions and feelings no matter the circumstances. Leaders, far from shunning blame, put themselves first in line whenever there is blame to go around. Even in cases where they could legitimately claim that things aren’t their fault and where others are the ones who made a mistake, a leader understands that being responsible for others means being responsible for their shortcomings as well. A leader understands that to shun blame is to shun responsibility, and thus to shun the lifeblood of leadership itself. So, where a boss requires that others—other people or various elements of the environment—take responsibility for their shortcomings, a leader takes responsibility for the shortcomings of others in order to pull them up to their level.
OK, so let’s get back to that stereotypically impotent boss up there. At this point, we can clearly see that this isn’t a shining example of what it means to be a boss, and probably not even a very effective one, and I think it goes without saying that we can all see what’s wrong with the first three approaches to dealing with the feeling of impotence listed above. But what’s wrong with appearing perfect beyond being disingenuous? Well, now we are getting a bit closer to the heart of things, because what’s wrong with trying to appear perfect is this: perfection doesn’t exist.
That may have come as a shock to some of you younger souls out there, so let me repeat that: perfection does not exist, nor has it ever existed, nor will it ever exist. It is nothing more than a ghost in the machine. To assume and operate under the misconception that perfection exists, or that it is even somehow attainable, is to live in denial of reality. To weigh others against the measure of perfection and find them wanting, that is to live in violent denial of reality, to the detriment of all those around you, much less those who look to you for leadership.
Why is it dangerous to try and appear perfect if perfection doesn’t exist? For one thing, there is no limit to what one will do or what one will sacrifice in the attempt to attain what is unattainable; nothing is unjustifiable as long as it is being done in the name of something that does not exist. Just think of how many atrocities have been justified in the pursuit of some lofty, but unattainable ideal. So, a boss that lays claim to perfection can become very dangerous indeed. Another reason that the boss attempting to appear perfect can be so negative is because perfection is unattainable, nothing will ever be enough to attain it, and because nothing will ever be enough, one will always fall short no matter how hard one tries. So, one comes away with a deep sense of shame for never being enough, and that sense of shame leads to either self-condemnation and disempowerment or to destructive attempts to replace shame with self-esteem, or often both. Obviously, neither of these responses are ideal, but the latter is clearly more susceptible to abuse; the followers of a toxic boss attempt to replace their shame with self-esteem by either yoking themselves steadfast—come hell or high water—to their “perfect” boss or start taking pages out of Despotism 101 themselves.
By far, the worst outcome of this façade of perfection that a toxic boss maintains is that imperfection becomes weaponized to the point that shame becomes pandemic and all authenticity is dead. Everyone is so concerned with maintaining their own armor to protect themselves, that hardly anything gets done, nothing of consequence is achieved, progress is not maintained, to say nothing of a transformative vision coming to fruition. Values erode because the faults of others are used to excuse one’s own faults. Integrity of the community breaks down to the point that its members condemn and betray each other just to maintain their standing, precarious though it may be. Blackmail becomes the currency of the land, and no one dares point out the mote in the boss’ eye lest they convict one of having a log in one’s own eye. Eventually, the motto of this kind of community becomes the same as the one in charge of it, that is, “I’m not the One, but it’s all about me.”
The leader on the other hand, the Transformative Leader especially, neither considers themselves perfect nor requires that others regard them as such. A Transformative Leader has an interesting relationship with perfection, but that relationship does not in any way involve laying claim to it, exclusively or otherwise. Although to a certain extent, we all believe that there is something wrong with imperfection, the ideal leader understands that there is nothing wrong with thinking there is something wrong with imperfection; the leader understands that it is not their task to embody perfection, but to show others that there is, in fact, nothing wrong with imperfection because imperfection is all that there is. And so, a leader, far from hiding their flaws, confesses their sins—what is sin but another word for imperfection?—and shows others how to do the same, and puts their shortcomings on display, to show others that one can be flawed and still be extraordinary and inspire others to be extraordinary. The ideal leader knows that they don’t need to be perfect to inspire others, but rather they can only inspire others once they have admitted their imperfection, because only then can they set the example of how to powerfully and authentically deal with one’s own particular sense of not being enough.
A leader is safe from many of the Despotism 101 tactics because of many of the habits they adopt. For one thing, a leader is rightly no respecter of persons, meaning that they don’t play favorites or trade in favors and they don’t encourage others to treat them any differently than anyone else. This is because an ideal leader knows that we are all Transformative Leaders within and so there is no real basis for limiting access to the tools and knowledge with which others can develop themselves. As servants first, ideal leaders do not shy away from humility as a sign of weakness, but rather regard humility as what it is, “a selfless respect for reality,” of which one is merely an infinitesimal part. A leader, not elevating themselves above others, also doesn’t require that their followers pay obeisance by belittling themselves before them. Rather than weaponizing shame as a bad boss does, they do not act with the aim to condemn others for their faults and cow them into submission, but rather to free those who look to them for guidance from their own self-condemnation.
Coming to the last segment of this post, we come to the heart of what the paradox of perfection means, and how it is alternately misunderstood and understood by the boss and the leader, respectively.
The boss who masquerades as the avatar of the perfect, contrary to their image, is nevertheless deeply condemned and convicted by the specter of perfection. Perhaps not understanding that it is unattainable, or having been measured against it and found wanting during their formative years, they may construe its elusiveness as taunting, reminding them of their own inadequacy and evoking a sense of shame at not having been enough. This sense of shame, of course, is very uncomfortable and so they do what we all do unless we catch ourselves: they cover it up with the “icing” of defense mechanisms and pretense and they project it on to others. Eventually, they may even become resentful of the idea of any type of ideal at all, and explicitly reject any suggestion that we should strive for anything greater. After all, such a boss might argue, if perfection is unattainable, then why bother? Why not just do whatever, because failure is assured, and failure is shameful and wrong, and because if you never try, you can never fail. And since nothing and no one is enough to achieve perfection, everyone is equally culpable and equally ripe to be shamed into submission, so the accusation of “not enough” becomes a cudgel that be used at the boss’ discretion to keep people in line.
The ideal leader on the other hand, as I mentioned before, has a peculiar relationship with perfection. The relationship with perfection could be described as quixotic, in the sense that they enthusiastically engage in an activity that is universally understood to be impossible, and in fact it is the activity’s impossibility that necessitates its undertaking to begin with. While they don’t fight windmills, leaders are tasked with figuratively scaling the highest mountains in order to reach the sky, and with guiding others up the very same footpaths knowing that they too will come away empty-handed.
It is the esteemed responsibility of leaders to pursue perfection with the full understanding that it can never be achieved, an undertaking which Amir characterizes as comprising “excellence.” Rather than see perfection as taunting, leaders see perfection as beckoning, drawing one ever higher, no matter how high one has already ascended. And this tension between what one has achieved and the infinite possibility of what there is to be achieved in the future is the engine that drives all transformation. A leader reasons that since perfection is unattainable, the fruits from striving to achieve it are also inexhaustible, and so it is a wellspring of transformation without end.
Instead of feeling condemned or convicted by the specter of perfection, leaders know that rightly understood, it is freeing to finally realize that perfection does not exist. As has been said, “In a world without perfection, there can be no flaws, only differences.” And so, leaders know that imperfection cannot be used to shame or condemn others, because imperfection is all there is and all there ever was and all there ever will be, and moreover, that this is the best thing that could have ever happened. Since perfection is imaginary, it stands to reason that no one can ever fail in achieving it, and so failure, rather than becoming some sword of Damocles hanging over each of our heads, is seen for what it actually is: a mirage. Seen for what it is, failure is no longer used as a reason to stop striving for greatness, just as imperfection is no longer used as a reason not to start in the first place.
And so lastly we come to the most peculiar implication of the fact that perfection is a phantasm and its implications on leadership and transformation. Because perfection does not exist as a state that can be achieved, we could think of it as similar to an asymptote on a line graph, that is, a threshold that the line approaches but never actually touches. Although the line never touches that threshold, it does get closer and closer to it ad infinitum. So we might say that even though the state of perfection is unattainable, the process of perfecting is manifest in the progress we make in striving towards the ideal of perfection, despite knowing we will never attain it. From this, we could conclude that the only way in which perfection exists is in the process of perfecting itself, in getting closer and closer to that ideal. Because of this, it is the case that, no matter how far away something is from that ideal of perfection, as soon as the process of perfecting has begun, the process is also complete in its entirety.
That may be a bit difficult to wrap one’s head around, so let me elaborate. Since the process of perfecting is the only form of perfection that we can say exists at all, once we have begun that process of perfecting, we are as close to perfection as we will ever be. To paraphrase a Zen master, to seek perfection is itself already perfection. It has been said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, but with the above in mind, I believe we can amend that to say that the same journey ends in a single step. To put it another way, in a journey that has no end, one arrives at the destination with each step. When it comes to perfection and to transformation, which is the hypostasis of perfection, “as long as you are moving, you are right where you want to be.” Since, as another Zen saying goes, when you get to where you are going, you see that there is no “there” there, you see that there is no difference between any “here” or any “there.”
A leader understands that because nothing will ever be enough to attain perfection, everyone and everything is already enough just as it is. Thus, having established a transformative vision, a leader exemplifies resting in that transformative future; they affirm that there is nothing wrong with things just as they are right now, and yet also affirm that there is always still more to be done. Transformation is consummate in every moment that it is being pursued. Why do Transformative Leaders embrace imperfection of the world so? Because they know that it is all that exists. They know that it is folly to wait for the perfect moment, so they instead take this very moment and make it perfect by getting started. More than that, they know the secret of imperfection, and that secret is this: the more imperfect something is, the more it can be perfected, and when something is perfectly imperfect, as the world itself is, its potential to be perfected becomes infinite.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Be mindful of how those you look to for leadership regard the idea of perfection. If your leader finds fault in every person and circumstance beside themselves, then you are dealing with an impotent boss. If you can’t find any flaws in your leader or if you are discouraged from doing so, you are looking at the façade of a boss attempting to cover something up.
If you constantly have to defend your leader’s behavior and make excuses for their shortcomings, and if you have to take responsibility for them rather than them taking responsibility for you, that person isn’t your leader. If your leader attempts to appear perfect, refuses to cop to any mistakes, and doesn’t see any reason to confess their sins because they see humility and vulnerability as a weakness, you aren’t dealing with a leader, you are dealing with a boss with self-esteem issues.
If someone highlights your misdeeds and equivocates on your values because they reason that they don’t matter in the grand scheme of things, and if they rely on shame and guilt and you identifying with your worst self to influence your actions, then they are not a leader by any means.
Leaders are guides that help us authentically and powerfully navigate the relationship between perfection and imperfection. A leader will never be perfect or attempt to be, but rather inspires others by how they deal with their imperfection, never condemning, but always compelling others to pursue greatness without end.
The most important part of transformative goals is not what you get by achieving them, but who you become by pursuing them, to paraphrase Zig Ziglar. Because you will always be able to become better, you will never be enough, and because of that, you will already always be enough just as you are. Transformative Leaders exist to remind others of that fact.
Have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary! I would love to hear about your victories and/or challenges. Please leave your comments below or send me an email at email@example.com.
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