In Praise of the Incomplete Leader – Good News For Some, A Challenge for Others

“No leader is perfect.  The best ones don’t try to be – they concentrate on honing their strengths and find others who can make up for their limitations.”

In Praise of the Incomplete Leader, the 2007 Harvard Business Review article by the brilliant Deborah Ancona, Thomas Malone, Wanda Orlikowski, and Peter Senge, of the MIT Sloan School of Management is an oldie, but a classic.   Core to the article is a debusting of the very damaging myth of the complete leader  – in favour of a healthier and more fit-for-purpose leadership model that values the strengths and humility of what the authors call incomplete leaders, who embrace a distributed leadership model across their organisations, collectively harnessing people’s diverse strengths to deliver greater agility, creativity, productivity and innovation.   And while the business case for this was incredibly strong back in 2007, today it is undeniable with the blistering pace of digital disruption and change.

Thankfully many organisations are now embracing a more distributed leadership style  – some out of wisdom, others out of necessity to survive.   

Good New for Some

When I share this good news story with coaching clients, the first reaction is typically an expression of joy stretching across people’s faces.  Joy, at the prospect of not having to exhaust themselves anymore with the unending struggle to be perfect.  Joy at the possibility of leading with all the arsenal of their strengths and finally joy at knowing that their limitations are not to be a source of shame but an invitation to build collaborations, like the best winning teams do.    For some they run with this knowledge and shift their focus to working on the right leadership development areas that will enable them achieve their ambitions – typically in the areas of visioning, strategic leadership, relating, influencing and leading change.

A Challenge for Others

For others however they would really like to believe me but can’t, not yet anyway.  For them the very thought of acknowledging a limitation or a developmental area, especially if asked in an interview situation, goes against their deeply ingrained beliefs of what it means to be a strong leader.  For them “the myth of the complete leader” still persists and their learned strategy is to always present themselves as the complete package, full-rounded, with nothing missing.  This is very often the case even when their organisations are actively encouraging continuous development for everyone from the CEO to newly joined graduates.   Very often in situations like this an organisation’s leadership model has evolved out of business necessity to meet the changing times, but at an individual level, not all managers have yet made that mindset shift and often need support in creating a safe pathway for adopting these new behavioural changes.   

If you’re a leader who struggles with this idea of leadership, three things you can do today to challenge your thinking are:

  1. Read the article (and any others you find on the topic) with an open mind and challenge yourself to find 3 good things about busting this myth of the complete leader.
  2. Broaden your perspective by talking about the topic with other leaders you admire including leaders who have a different style to you or are at different stages of their career.
  3. Get curious and examine your beliefs by asking yourself – what are 3 beliefs I have about my preferred leadership style that might be holding me back and not true at all?

Wishing you well,


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