The carpet in my home is a constant reminder of my imperfections as a leader. You see, I am amazed by deep crevices in carpet left by vacuums of various makes and models. Every weekend, I work diligently to create a masterpiece in my carpet worthy of recognition by those that honor both virtuosity and brilliance. And as I vacuum, I contemplate the contours and fissures that are a bit mesmerizing, an art form of sorts, as they symmetrically represent patterns and possibilities. They exhibit a systematic organization, and the potential for composing designs are limitless.
The patterns to which I am most drawn are symmetrical lines of sweet, simplistic harmony. To me, straight and rigid carpet lines represent tradition and offer a semblance of picturesque proportion and balance. The lines I strive to create are traced by my Dyson Upright, and are geometric in nature. In a sense, they are mathematically determined and formulaic; each line functioning as an algorithm of regularity. Sharp edges that convey order, conformity, and reliability.
And here is where the reminders of my imperfections as a leader come in. Each weekend as I strive for sharp, rigid lines in my carpet, I am also reminded of my desire for more linear methods of delegation, more definitive processes for decision-making, and more precise organizational systems to help me accomplish the short and long term goals I’ve established for myself as a leader, and for our district as a whole. As I gaze into the lines, carefully crafted with the back-and-forth motion of my steady lunge and proper balance, I consider my grip and forearm strength, understanding the torque necessary to ensure minimal stress on the wrist and elbow joints. I’ve got this vacuuming thing down to a science. So why is it so darn hard to apply the same principles to leadership?
I am a leader who desires routine, predictability, steady back-and-forth motions. I know where the tensions and areas of weakness lie in our district, and I consider myself pretty good at minimizing those for the most part. I think of myself as strong; as someone who actually enjoys productive problem-solving and work-related stress. As with housework, I feel like I when I am focused, I can get a tremendous amount accomplished in a day, and often, I find myself working long hours; knowing I can pull through in clutch moments. I am a leader who doesn’t give up in the face of problems, but enjoys working with others to find creative solutions until they are solved.
But I can not do any of this through linear, definitive, or precise leadership habits or practices. And this is what makes me imperfect.
Imperfections can be Strengths
As a leader who advocates vulnerability as a strength, I sometimes disappoint myself by ascribing to the notion that I should be super-human, algorithmic, or formulaic; and that any weakness or imperfection diminishes my leadership. Occasionally, I allow self-doubt to seep in due to the omnipresence of my imperfections as an abstract, random thinker.
However, as an inclusive leader, it’s clear to me that this line of thinking is offensive, if not menacing to the very mindset that undergirds the servant philosophy necessary to be humble, accepting, and kind. Its our imperfections that reveal our humanity and help us connect with others in heartfelt ways. And it’s mundane tasks such as vacuuming, that can stand in as surrogates to help us reconnect with our imperfections. Not just in our jobs, but in our homes and in the other tasks we do (bare with me here – I’m not losing it!), because embracing our imperfections is imperative to our relationships with others. It’s equally important to our future as we seek to create lasting, equitable change in our schools, delivering on the promise for all students to get an excellent education. We can’t do this without trusting connections with others. So by embracing our imperfections, and understanding our vulnerabilities, we have the capability of creating systems better equipped for equitable outcomes, and our collective commitments and efforts become promises kept to our youth instead of adding to the long historical lists of promise broken. But none of this happens by ignoring our imperfections.
In fact, not acknowledging our imperfections is counter-productive for two very important reasons:
- It’s unsustainable. We are human, with weaknesses, flaws, faults, and imperfections. If we don’t acknowledge this now, these facts eventually catch up to us, and they may end up taking us down. We don’t want to be taken down by our own ego!
- It’s not good leadership. Leadership is all about relationships and connection. People who feel connected to us follow us, work hard for us, create and risk and sacrifice for us, all because of the inspiring and trusting relationship we’ve cultivated. No one truly connects, trusts, or gives their all to a supervisor who only reveals the parts they think are impressive. Our employees catch on. They see right through it. If we want to exercise good leadership, we’ve got to be real – and real is real – imperfections and all.
In other words, making too big of a fuss on vacuuming straight lines might be setting us back.
When we focus on the lines (linear processes, to-do lists) instead of the job itself (connection and relationships), we are masking our imperfections. If we attempt to hide our imperfections in an effort to become strong leaders, we actually become weak leaders.
As inclusive leaders, we understand our imperfections don’t define us any more than our successes do. It’s from this point of humanity that we seek real connection and request help from individuals and entities that differ from us in order to be bolstered by their insights, perspectives, and ways of approaching the world. There is so much to learn about our world and our work, and by inviting others in, we are opening up ideas and possibilities, and becoming stronger as a whole as we do so.
Here’s the truth: leaders who don’t need help have no one to lead. And a leader with no one to lead is not a leader at all.
If we want to be better leaders, we have to focus on connections. On relationships. We can do this by enlisting the help of others. Folks feel good when they help. It’s fairly universal for people to feel inspired when they are needed. The same holds true for our employees, our students, and our community members. They don’t think less of the leaders they help, they feel more connected.
I vacuum my carpet each weekend alone. But I don’t lead alone. In fact, I am fortunate to have a solid team of dedicated and highly skilled leaders that bolster me up and help me lead our district each day. They make it light and fun, but also understand the ins and outs of pushing back on the status quo in order to create cultural change. They work hard, and are as committed to equity and student-centered decision-making as I am. They compliment my imperfections perfectly, and I look forward to working with each of them each day.
Working with others is really what it’s all about. Formulas, precision, and linear processes are for engineers and computer programmers – not educational leaders. Not leaders of people. I have a great team that allows me to be me, accepts my imperfections, and helps me learn and grow. What could be more perfect?
A very clever metaphor, thank you for the reminder – and wonderfully written piece.
Sometimes it’s easier to get caught up in the vacuum patterns (perfection, systems, and creating order) I think because often times it gives us the sense of completion in a job that is rarely ever “complete” (as in task-wise). However, relationships, collaboration, and teamwork provides us completion – in interactions that leave us feeling “complete” (as in a whole human being).
Thanks so much!
Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Leah. You are one of the best at both systems AND relationships. You know when to push and you also know when to encourage. Your systems help you prioritize when to use each approach. Miss you!!!
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Miss you too, my friend. Thank you so much for the compliment – your words have always helped me to grow. Proud of you every day and I love that you’ve found time to reflect and write. Keep working to better our world’s future.