In Praise of the Incomplete Leader: HBR Must Reads on Leadership Review #10

Leaders are incomplete. It is as simple as that. In fact, Ancona, Malone, Orlikowski, and Senge posit that it is the flailing attempts by leaders to be and appear perfect that lead to the failings of most leaders. The authors go to discuss the burdensome dichotomy of perfection that leaders often face when trying to meet the expectations of the “the flawless being at the top who has it all figured out” and trying to remain confident in the eyes of the public while, in truth, wresting with great uncertainty. Instead, the authors propose four interrelated skills that leaders should keep in balance to the best extent possible and leverage others, throughout the organization, to fill in key areas where they are unable to do so, either by ability or by choice.

“The sooner organizations stop trying to be all things to all people, the better off their organizations will be. ”Ancona, Malone, Orlikowski, and Senge

Four Leadership Capabilities of Incomplete Leaders

  1. Sensemaking: Constantly understanding changes in the business environment and interpreting their ramification for the industry and company.
  2. Relating: Building trusting relationships, balancing advocacy (explaining viewpoints) with inquiry (listening to understand others’ viewpoints), and cultivating networks of supportive confidants.
  3. Visioning: Creating credible and compelling images of a desired future that people in the organization want to create together.
  4. Inventing: Creating new ways of approaching tasks or overcoming seemingly insurmountable problems to turn visions into reality.

The key to authentic leadership is in the maintenance of one’s authenticity. George, Sims, McLean, and Mayer also highlight the importance of building extraordinary support teams to help leaders stay on course and integrating one’s life such that leaders can maintain a sense of self no matter where they are.

Distributed Leadership

The key word in this theory is “incomplete”, or in other words, imperfect. It requires a letting go of the “myth of the complete leader” and embracing one’s strengths while leveraging others, as needed. Theoretically the shift to becoming an incomplete leader will keep leaders off the ledge of pursuing perfection and more deeply engaged in their unique combination of leadership capabilities, simply by not trying to be someone that they are not. This then allows the leader to operate in their best leadership capability while engaging and leveraging others in theirs, or what the authors call distributed leadership.  Distributed leadership is seen as more practical in a global market; “In today’s world, the executive’s job is no longer to command and control, but to cultivate and coordinate the actions of others at all levels of the organization.”

“Leadership can’t keep hiring and promoting like-minded people in the name of organizational fit and expect to compete in a diverse global economy. ” Tandemspring

The incomplete leader offers a welcome shift in the paradigm of leadership. It is not that others have not supported a similar shift (e.g., Crucibles of Leadership, Level 5 Leadership, Authentic Leadership, etc.), however, Ancona, Malone, Orlikowski, and Senge offer a comprehensive rationale that truly speaks to the context of leadership in modern times, not only from the perspective of a global economy, but also the myth of modern institutional leaders in an post-industrialized world. The four leadership capacities seem reasonable enough and they are in fact defined as strengths.

There are three primary challenges with this model.  First, while the interdependency across the four leadership capabilities is noted by the authors, it would seem that sensemaking is particularly crucial for engagement in the other three (relating, visioning, and inventing). In other words, if one does not have strengths in sensemaking, then it is reasonable to question to what extent a leader is authentically engaging in any of the other strengths as defined by Ancona, Malone, Orlikowski, and Senge. This is true more for sensemaking than the other strengths, and deserves special attention as a starting place for engagement with this model.

The second would be the lack of individualization within these incomplete models. Without understanding that expression within each of these four leadership capacities can, and should, look different based on individual personality, strengths, industry, economic contexts, etc., the model risks being like every other antiquated model of leadership – a set of checkboxes that require checking to be a great leader. This is not necessarily a limitation, but an opportunity for further exploration using this model as a foundation.

Last, the final challenge with this model is that despite being a strengths-based model it, rather surprisingly, relies heavily on deficit-oriented language. Giving the authors the benefit of the doubt, it is unclear from this article alone if this is a representation of the model itself or about getting people comfortable with even thinking this way, as most of us are so indoctrinated with deficit-first approaches.  Within an existing corporate mindset it is fairly reasonable that as a person makes their way on the journey to strengths that they may feel the urge to get comfortable with harboring weaknesses as a logical step. But, it does beg the question of why we even have to go there. There is no need to go down he rabbit hole of deficits at all, and instead simply lead through strengths and create space for others to do the same. Regardless, further engagement within this framework would require a strong strengths-based approach and likely a repositioning for most people to be truly effective.

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As this is the tenth of ten responses to HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership, we wanted to take a moment to, first and foremost, thank you, our readers, for joining us on this journey of reflecting on leading models of leadership and how they do and don’t fit the strengths-based TandemSpring model of leadership.  If you haven’t already read the other HBR article reviews, we invite you to do so here.  As authors, we have found this journey enlightening and challenging as we investigated these various models of leadership and were forced to consider them through the critical lens of strengths-based leadership.  We genuinely hope that you have enjoyed this series and invite you to share your thoughts and comments with us.  Thank you again for joining us on this exploration of leadership.