I wrote yesterday about the danger in tying the value of wisdom and advice to the morality of the advice-giver or to our opinion of that person. Underlying that discussion is the importance of acknowledging failure and accepting flaws, and then working to overcome them.
Failure is essential to the human experience; we would not be able to define success without it, nor would be we be able to learn and grow if there was nothing we were shallow, ignorant or inexperienced about.
And, in theory, corporate America gets this. We talk about innovation by failing fast, of developing employees by letting them make mistakes and overcome them. But do we live this or simply say it? Do we really believe this, or do we revert back to holding others — but not ourselves — to the common but impossible standard of perfection?
Let’s start with two quotes about the value of flaws in our leaders and leadership, both from W.E.B. DuBois in 1922, writing in response to those upset by his earlier critical remarks about President Abraham Lincoln. First, on posthumous hero worship of great figures:
[N]o sooner does a great man die than we begin to whitewash him. We seek to forget all that was small and mean and unpleasant and remember the fine and brave and good. We slur over and explain away his inconsistencies and at last there begins to appear, not the real man, but the tradition of the man–remote, immense, perfect, cold and dead!
Second, on why a full picture of Lincoln, warts and all, is vital:
… I love him not because he was perfect but because he was not and yet triumphed. The world is full of illegitimate children. The world is full of folk whose taste was educated in the gutter. The world is full of people born hating and despising their fellows. To these I love to say: See this man. He was one of you and yet he became Abraham Lincoln.
The flawed hero/villain perspective
It is difficult for many people to discuss Lincoln without falling into hero worship or anger. To the hero-worshiper: Simply because we acknowledge that his views on race and slavery were not particularly progressive; that certain wartime strategies or decisions backfired; or countless other criticisms; does not negate what he became. We can live up to, learn from and improve the human condition by looking to Lincoln the human being for guidance; we can learn nothing suitable for mortals by looking to Lincoln the demigod.
Similarly, if we look at nothing but Lincoln’s constitutionally controversial actions on wartime powers, including habeas corpus, at his cautious actions on slavery and black rights, and at the worst of his statements on race, we could be left declaring him a racist tyrant. Is that any more reflective of the reality? And what can we possibly learn from that?
Hero worship in the modern workplace can take the form of blindly following leaders based on reputation, on maintaining strategies and tactics because they used to work or because someone important created them, or by not holding people accountable because of who they are. The tearing down of people probably takes an unlimited number of forms, including rejecting ideas and holding grudges because of the personalities involved.
Leadership based on reflection, not prejudgment
In both these posts, it may seem that I am advocating for a muddy gray moral reality of leadership without conclusions. That’s a danger, for sure. But I suspect that for many of us, especially management, indecisiveness and certainty is not a problem. It can only help to have more reflection, more consideration and more understanding underpinning our decisions, judgments and dealings, whether with failure or success.
The stakes are, one hopes, lower in your workplace than they were for Lincoln, but you might ask yourself these questions:
- Do I accept advice or ideals without inspection because of the person giving it?
- Do I defend actions, projects or strategies simply because I came up with them or because they benefit me?
- Do I resist legitimate criticism of people or their ideas simply because I like them?
- Do I dismiss opinions because they come from so-and-so department or because I don’t like them or their boss?
- What do I miss when I refuse to question my assumptions, and how might that affect me and the company?
- Most of us will forgive ourselves of mistakes, or rationalize them away. Even if we are hard on ourselves, we rarely dismiss our ability to ever succeed again. Do I offer that same courtesy to co-workers, partners or customers?
- When I fall short, do I stop to reflect on what went wrong and what adjustments might be made?
- When I succeed, do I take any time to reflect on why things went right or how I can pass this knowledge on to others?
- Do I seek the advice and counsel of others, even when I know I might not like what they have to say?