What To Do When Leadership Role Modeling Fails?

Tímea Csízik
Coach | OD Consultant | Developer | HR Professional
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Leaders like to have impact on the world around them. They like to inspire and influence others. Actually, others expect them to do so as well. And they have even more effect on the culture of the organization than they think at first. Whether they like it or not, whether they do it right or wrong.

Leaders are always role models

Besides business results, leaders’ behavior is also crucial in defining the values, norms, climate and engagement in the team they lead. Everything a leader says and does is observed by team members and has an effect on the group. Followers watch how they behave and how they treat others.

Therefore, leaders are always role models when they ‘come out of their tent’.

They set standards regarding values, norms and organizational behaviors (expected and tolerated as well) when…

…making decisions
…making the aspects lying behind their decisions visible
…they appreciate somebody’s work
…they listen to objections
…they say less and ask more
…celebrating small successes
…are ready to change perspective in difficult conversations
…they give a radically honest feedback
…they feel good with their ‘busy’ mindset
…they repeatedly postpone 1:1 sessions with their employees
…they get lost in details
…being undisciplined in execution
…being reluctant to say no
…having a bad day
…being unavailable
…being vulnerable.

Leaders are role models together with their imperfections, whether they admit them or not.

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What to do if you are not perfect as a leader?

It’s not easy to be an imperfect leader and to be an imperfect role model. It might help to face this challenge if we are convinced that others can learn from our imperfections and we can grow by them too.

#1 Acknowledge

The first thing we should do is to acknowledge the fact that we are not perfect.

We are not perfect as leaders, as role models, as humans.

We have qualities and habits that are worth to follow, and we have imperfections others might be better at.

The second thing we should acknowledge that we set standards with our behavior no matter it is one of our strengths or of our weaknesses. Our whole self is in play and has an impact on others.

These two aspects may rise contradiction in some of us. ‘OK, I’m not perfect, but I set norms with my undesirable behavior as well. What to do about it?’

#2 Ask feedback & develop

When you feel that contradiction, the next step can be that you proactively ask feedback from your followers regarding your leadership behavior, style and impact. However, sometimes we don’t realize that our personal or leadership behavior needs improvement.

In this case we can make a habit of asking feedback by setting up regular occasions or tools for this. But do not make it an ‘automation’.

One of the most disappointing feature of a leader is when they ask and even seem to accept feedback, but then they’re reluctant to use it for their development.

So it is important to express how we will use the feedback, and to really dedicate energy for making concrete actions to improve.

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#3 Leverage the opportunity

It happens that it turns out we have imperfections that are not easy to develop: it would be a longer process, it would take more time, or we are not ready to change those features despite we know how it influences others.

In this case we should encourage followers to take responsibility for those areas or leadership functions that are not successfully covered by us. There are always members in the team who crave for challenges, who aspire to higher leadership positions.

Find somebody in your team who can fill the gap and use this opportunity to develop others with stretch assignments.

Keep in mind that this move only has its motivational and empowering effect if you do not skip the step of acknowledging (#1) and then sharing your insights with the spotted talent.

For example, you find yourself having troubles with giving a big picture to your employees. Maybe it is because you think they know it, you think, they don’t need it, there’s no time for it or you are just inclined to lost in details of execution or of testing new ideas. In this case you might find somebody in the group who is good at connecting execution with visions.

After you shared your insights with him/her about your imperfection at giving a big picture, you can ask him/her to take this role in group meetings and remember you to do this till you learn to adopt it.

I accept that all of this is easier said than done.

These three simple points seem to be reasonable for all of us. Many of you even agree with them, some of you’ve been familiar with them for a while. But still, it’s not easy to apply them in everyday leadership practice. Fortunately, no matter how lonely a leadership role can be, we all have followers we can involve in this process.

Let’s see the other side of this story and examine what your followers can do to grow by your leadership imperfections.

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Followers, the time is now

It’s not easy to follow an imperfect leader. When you see your leader’s imperfections you might become disappointed.

Many of us do not like to be led by others, so when we are, we expect our leaders to do it right at least.

On the other hand, there are a lot of employees who feel it more comfortable to be led, because in this case there is somebody who takes the responsibility of making decisions, setting directions and confronting others. However, in both cases we might feel disappointed when we experience our leaders’ imperfections.

This disappointment is fairly understandable. After acknowledging our setback, instead of pointless complaining we can start to take actions in order to change the situation.

#1 Give feedback

Simple complaining and judgmental comments won’t help the situation. It is understood that you are unsatisfied with your boss. And it is not your exact job to develop him/her.

Still, by precise and constructive feedback you can show him/her how his/her behavior affects you, your work and your productivity. The combo of communicating facts and highlighting consequences has the power to make others change perspective.

#2 Take responsibility

We can always say that: “It is not my job to do this or that. That is why I have my boss, he should be able to do this. He has the power, and finally, that’s why he gets the fancy big car…”.

However, you can also leverage the opportunity, especially if you have aspiration for leadership positions. Pick one or two imperfections of your leader, check if you can have the competencies to do it better, than initiate. Identify some leadership tasks you can accomplish better and show you initiation by taking responsibility of performing them.

It’s important you do it with the spirit of support or self-development and not with the energy of defiance.

#3 Use bad examples to learn

We can learn from the most disastrous leaders. At least the ways how not to and how we would never handle such situations. Then, we should not stop here.

We can move forward with finding alternative ways to solve the situation in question. This is how we can prepare for our upcoming hard leadership challenges. Still, do not forget to find the good examples as well in the behavior of the same person, and use them for inspiration.

#4 Find your own leadership style

Perfect leaders (I mean perceived to be perfect ;)) show a perfect way to lead others. In this case, if you are a freshly nominated leader, it is hard to say: “I will do it differently.” It is easy to think that the straightest way to success is to copy-paste your boss’s leadership style, tools and actions.

In my experience, it works less than more.

But when you happen to meet an imperfect leader this could be a big exclamation mark that you have the opportunity to work on your own leadership identity.

Despite you don’t have a perfect leader, you can still get inspired by his/her acts. As you cannot blindly follow and copy him/her to be a successful leader, you can start to answer the following questions:

What kind of a leader AM I?
What kind of a leader would I like to be?
How others see ME?
What do others often misunderstand about me?
Why is it worth to follow ME?
What can I give to MY team?
How do we work in MY team?
How it is recognizable that they are MY team, they are led by ME?
What footprints would I like to leave in this organization?
What difference can I make as a leader?

Challenge for the week

If we have followers, we are always role models. We are even role modeling how we handle imperfections and how we use them as opportunities.

Answer at least one of these questions and then take action according to the insights of the article:

What are your leadership imperfections?
How do others see you?
How do your imperfections affect your followers?
Who are the ones with some leadership potential and/or aspiration in your team?
Who are the ones who do have some leadership competencies but are not ready yet or do not aspire for a leadership role?
Who can you ask to support you on one or two of your current gaps?

And last, but not least, encourage your followers to experience with the 4 steps above.


Want to work on your leadership imperfections?

Check out Symblify for Leaders, the first self-coaching app that combines symbolic thinking and solutions focused coaching in a 20-minute coaching session >>>

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