Do Leaders Have to Be Perfect?

What qualities do we seek in leaders? A quick search of help-wanted ads for the title “chief executive officer” (CEO) reveals that the most sought-after attribute in CEOs is a demonstrated history of progressively impressive successes. Indeed, we sculpt our resumes to appear just that way, to portray ourselves as works of art that keep getting better. This is the norm; we have come to expect a job market that scorns setbacks and false starts. We gloss over our missteps or failures and fret about the dreaded gap on the resume. We prepare explanations for those gaps—schooling ourselves that such explanations be neither so mundane as “took time off to raise a family,” nor so calamitous as “battled cancer,” “went to rehab,” or, heaven forbid, “hospitalized for clinical depression.” This perspective is reminiscent of what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck terms the “fixed mindset,” a mindset that dreads failure—as failures are negative reflections on the worth of the individual who fails.

Employers seek leaders who will inspire staff, show vision, implement plans and policies, and who have a demonstrated history of whipping organizations into shape—of guiding institutions through profound and transformational growth. While we pursue these qualities in leaders, we do not always consider the conditions that might give rise to them. We understandably value stability and a demonstrated history of success. We may prize leaders who have overcome institutional setbacks and challenges, but rarely prioritize identifying candidates who have battled internal demons. In fact, we look for the perfect record: the premier schools, the highest class rank, the best scores, the finest professional certifications and the most prestigious employment histories. We look for win after win and shy away from any hints of personal or professional dysfunction.

While we are inclined to seek perfection when undertaking an objective evaluation of ourselves and others as leadership prospects, perfection is not, in fact, the quality we admire the most. If we engage people in conversations about what qualities they cherish in their heroes, particularly a person whom they would dub a leader, they will not answer that they admire how a leader sailed through life, how they made the most of a life already blessed with such advantage, or how they piled on win after win without ever encountering difficulty or disappointment.

When we reflect upon some of the greatest leaders from history and in popular culture, an array of diverse figures comes to mind. An informal poll of “people I most admire” among friends and colleagues yielded the following results: Barack Obama, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai, Jesse Owens, Gloria Steinem, Emma Gonzalez and Joshua Wong (and many others). These results support the hypothesis that most people’s personal list of heroes is populated by individuals who overcame tremendous obstacles and hardship to gain the reputations they now enjoy. Each of the people on this representative list is a prime example of Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset.” Each of them encountered significant obstacles, but persevered in their endeavors and challenged what they perceived to be harmful societal norms. Many of them spent significant time in jail, refusing to compromise principles and ideals in favor of short-term comforts or success. Several of them died violently, and several more have encountered and overcome the trauma of extreme violence and oppression. We love these people not despite their struggles but because of them.

Every person’s story includes setbacks and adversity. Some people suffer from severe health problems, others have a mental illness or a history of addiction. Still, others may have endured extreme economic hardship, domestic violence or other trauma. When we are in the throes of experiencing these events, they might act as obstacles to educational, professional or other types of success. Even after we have overcome or survived these types of circumstances, we worry that they undermine our professional qualifications or diminish our capacity to provide skilled professional services.

Lawyers pride themselves on their problem-solving skills. We are highly trained professionals who navigate and resolve other people’s conflicts and setbacks. As such, we are hesitant to embrace our own weaknesses and challenges, preferring instead to perceive and portray our paths to professional achievement as having been paved by our past—notable for success after success. We worry that seeking help for mental health concerns or alcohol or drug use will tarnish our reputations. We are convinced that admitting weaknesses or dependence on others will taint our images and impair our abilities to act like a competent professional. Rarely do we stop to consider how prioritizing our own struggles, how humbly and gracefully confronting and overcoming our demons, might improve our practices and make us leaders whom our clients and coworkers will admire.

Even if we acknowledge that we may be impaired by, say, addiction or depression and that addressing that problem would help us to increase productivity and bring greater energy to our work, we rarely stop to consider how our individual stories of struggle might also build confidence, enhance stress-management skills, improve our client relationships and communications, help us to develop niche practice areas, and generally put our lived experience to use as assets in our practice.

It is, of course, understandable that when we review a stack of resumes, we look for indicators of trustworthiness and reliability. Having a track record of wins or success, however, is just one marker of trustworthiness and reliability. Clients and coworkers value lawyers who are present and genuine. They want to know that their lawyer or colleague can listen, empathize and understand. Though our profession places tremendous emphasis on the perfect record, academic pedigree and overall excellence, we intuitively know that there is also a strong demand for authenticity and unabashed imperfection. Clients will trust and rely upon lawyers who they believe will understand their struggles, who will always tell them the truth and will admit to not knowing all the answers and, from time to time, even being wrong.

If you (or someone you know) are struggling with crippling depression, anxiety or alcohol or substance use disorder, you may feel that the situation is unsalvageable, that the damage already done to career or family can never be overcome. Even if you have considered pursuing treatment or help, you have likely not thought much beyond removal of the immediate impairment and considered how your story of struggle and redemption might someday translate into a professional asset.

Those of us who work in the field of lawyer assistance programs witness miracles every day. While some of our clients’ problems may be so extensive that they may no longer be able to practice law with competence, many more have a bright future. I don’t know how many times I have heard people share that when they set out to get sober, all they expected was to learn how to bear a life without alcohol. When they embarked on their journey of recovery, they just wanted to stop the pain; instead, they gained a new appreciation and understanding of the tools of a fulfilled life. They have adopted a growth mindset. Never have they experienced such confidence in their abilities to manage stress, such meaning in their practices, and such consistency in their ability to deliver quality and impactful legal services to their clients. When they gain some comfort in their recovery, they might start to tell others their story, finding that their struggles may serve as the greater source of inspiration than their academic or professional pedigree.

In the abstract, we value leaders who have made an art of personal struggle. In popular culture, we venerate the underdog. We love the underdog story when we know it is an underdog story – we know the ending, we know the underdog is better for moral reasons and better for the world. But, when there is any room for doubt, lawyers will often rush to distance themselves from the appearance of incompetence.

Notwithstanding our admiration of the tale of struggle in principle, in practice we still too often stigmatize those who may be sick and suffering, perceiving them as damaged goods who may spread their imperfections to others. Overcoming this stigma starts with ourselves, with a practice of self-forgiveness and self-acceptance that can then extend to others. While ours may never become a society in which shortcomings and setbacks become a distinct section of our resume, if we continue to grow and expand the movement for lawyer well-being, attacking stigma and embracing struggle as a necessary condition for profound personal change, we will undoubtedly elevate the standing of the legal profession— and, a now-hazy vision of a healthy and thriving legal community, could soon become a distinct reality.

About the Author

Anna Levine is the executive director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, Inc., the lawyer assistance program for Massachusetts. Contact her at 617.482.9600 or at anna@lclma.org.

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