Why do we expect our leaders to be perfect…?

…and why do they let us do that to them?

I’ve been pondering these questions recently as I’ve got bored with seeing leaders wriggling like crazy to get to a position where they can’t be blamed for something or other.

One of the first business mantras I was taught when I started working for a certain telecommunications company mumble years ago was, “cover yourself”.
Sadly that mantra has seemed equally applicable in many of the positions of leadership I’ve been invited to take up over the years (and in all kinds of areas of leadership up to, and including, government).

And yet… it just doesn’t seem to make sense to me!

If our leaders stopped being afraid to be who they really are – faults and all – I, for one, would respect them far more than I am inclined to when I see them constantly trying to cover their embarrassment.

Clearly they have something to lose, or they wouldn’t be so concerned – so what is it that they’re afraid of?

For some it’s the prestige, the power, the platform, the adulation and the applause of others – but the only reason they have those things is because we give them that position in the first place – so presumably part of the fear comes from the nagging feeling that we might take it all away again! I can certainly understand how addictive that kind of adulation can be – but only if you start to believe in the hype that goes with it!

On the other side of the equation, it costs each of us something to submit to leadership – on some level or other we have to give up individual freedom in order to be led by another person. It also costs us something to see our leaders enjoying privileges that we ourselves do not – so we attribute characteristics to them that allow us to think that it’s worth that cost. We expect them to be wise, honest, reliable, caring, courageous, selfless – basically perfect and, should they fail to live up to those attributes, we expect them to pay the price for their ‘failure’.

Sadly, ‘taking responsibility’ these days seems to be equated to resignation – whereas, in theory at least, it could mean simply making a genuine apology – saying, “yes, it was my fault, I made a mistake, I’m sorry!”

The trouble is – that’s not the end of it because if we hold our leaders to that kind of standard then they build organisations upon that same foundation – they require the people around them to be perfect, because the failure of subordinates might reflect badly on them and might give the impression that they themselves have failed.

So our leaders try very hard to continue to appear to be perfect and expect perfection of us in turn – in order to maintain their ‘position’… and we let them because it’s worth the cost of keeping them in that position for us to be able to pretend that we’re OK too – because if they’re unwilling to expose their own flaws publicly then they can hardly expect us to behave any differently… and the whole house of cards wobbles from one crisis to another with everyone working as hard as possible to cover their own back!

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could live in a culture where we recognise the flaws in each other but we cover for each other;* where we expect our leaders to lead well, but recognise that they are not perfect and that they will make mistakes; where our leaders in turn recognise that we are not perfect and that we will make mistakes too!

*Note that I didn’t say cover UP.

Leighton Ford once said, “God loves us the way we are, but too much to leave us that way.”

I like that idea – that we can be loved enough not merely to be fully accepted for who we are (flaws and all) but enough not to be left in that flawed condition forever.

Just imagine how much we could get done if we weren’t constantly trying to cover up our own flaws – or distract from them by pointing out the flaws in others around us!