In praise of the incomplete leader

In praise of the incomplete leader

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

We’ve come to expect a lot of our leaders. Top executives, the thinking goes, should have the intellectual capacity to make sense of unfathomably complex issues, the imaginative powers to paint a vision of the future that generates everyone’s enthusiasm, the operational know-how to translate strategy into concrete plans, and the interpersonal skills to foster commitment to undertakings that could cost people’s jobs should they fail. Unfortunately, no single person can possibly live up to those standards. It’s time to end the myth of the complete leader: The flawless person at the top who has got it all figured out. In fact, the sooner leaders stop trying to be all things to all people, the better off their organisations will be. 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 organisation. Only when leaders come to see themselves as incomplete - as having both strengths and weaknesses - will they be able to make up for their missing skills by relying on others.

Corporations have been becoming less hierarchical and more collaborative for decades, of course, as globalisation and the growing importance of knowledge work have required that responsibility and initiative be distributed more widely. Moreover, it is now possible for large groups of people to coordinate their actions, not just by bringing lots of information to a few centralised places but also by bringing lots of information to lots of places through ever-growing networks within and beyond the firm. The sheer complexity and ambiguity of problems is humbling. More decisions are now made in the context of global markets and rapidly - sometimes radically - changing financial, social, political, technological, and environmental forces. Stakeholders such as activists, regulators, and employees all have claims on organisations.

No one person could possibly stay on top of everything. But the myth of the complete leader (and the attendant fear of appearing incompetent) makes many executives try to do just that, exhausting themselves and damaging their organisations in the process. The incomplete leader, by contrast, knows when to let go: When to let those who know the local market do the advertising plan or when to let the engineering team run with its idea of what the customer needs. The incomplete leader also knows that leadership exists throughout the organisational hierarchy - wherever expertise, vision, new ideas, and commitment are found.

We’ve worked with hundreds of people who have struggled under the weight of the myth of the complete leader. Over the past six years, our work at the MIT Leadership Centre has included studying leadership in many organisations and teaching the topic to senior executives, middle managers, and MBA students. In our practice-based programmes, we have analysed numerous accounts of organisational change and watched leaders struggle to meld top-down, strategic initiatives with vibrant ideas from the rest of the organisation.

All this work has led us to develop a model of distributed leadership. This framework, which synthesises our own research with ideas from other leadership scholars, views leadership as a set of four capabilities: Sensemaking (understanding the context in which a company and its people operate), relating (building relationships within and across organisations), visioning (creating a compelling picture of the future), and inventing (developing new ways to achieve the vision).

While somewhat simplified, these capabilities span the intellectual and interpersonal, the rational and intuitive, and the conceptual and creative capacities required in today’s business environment. Rarely, if ever, will someone be equally skilled in all four domains. Thus, incomplete leaders differ from incompetent leaders in that they understand what they’re good at and what they’re not and have good judgment about how they can work with others to build on their strengths and offset their limitations.

Sometimes, leaders need to further develop the capabilities they are weakest in. The examples in this article provide suggestions for when and how to do that. Other times, however, it’s more important for leaders to find and work with others to compensate for their weaknesses. Teams and organisations - not just individuals - can use this framework to diagnose their strengths and weaknesses and find ways to balance their skill sets.


The term “sensemaking” was coined by organisational psychologist Karl Weick, and it means just what it sounds like: Making sense of the world around us. Leaders are constantly trying to understand the contexts they are operating in. How will new technologies reshape the industry? How will changing cultural expectations shift the role of business in society? How does the globalisation of labour markets affect recruitment and expansion plans?

Weick likened the process of sensemaking to cartography. What we map depends on where we look, what factors we choose to focus on, and what aspects of the terrain we decide to represent. Since these choices will shape the kind of map we produce, there is no perfect map of a terrain. Therefore, making sense is more than an act of analysis; it’s an act of creativity.

Leaders need to determine what would be a useful map given their particular goals and then to draw one that adequately represents the situation the organisation is facing at that moment. Executives who are strong in this capability know how to quickly capture the complexities of their environment and explain them to others in simple terms. This helps ensure that everyone is working from the same map, which makes it far easier to discuss and plan for the journey ahead. Leaders need to have the courage to present a map that highlights features they believe to be critical, even if their map doesn’t conform to the dominant perspective.

Good leaders understand that sensemaking is a continuous process; they let the map emerge from a melding of observations, data, experiences, conversations, and analyses. In healthy organisations, this sort of sensemaking goes on all the time. People have ongoing dialogues about their interpretations of markets and organisational realities.

At IDEO, a product design firm, sensemaking is step one for all design teams. According to founder David Kelley, team members must act as anthropologists studying an alien culture to understand the potential product from all points of view. When brainstorming a new design, IDEO’s teams consider multiple perspectives - that is, they build multiple maps to inform their creative process. One IDEO team was charged with creating a new design for an emergency room. To better understand the experience of a key stakeholder - the patient - team members attached a camera to a patient’s head and captured his experience in the ER. The result: Nearly 10 hours of film of the ceiling. The sensemaking provoked by this perspective led to a redesign of the ceiling that made it more aesthetically pleasing and able to display important information for patients.


Many executives who attempt to foster trust, optimism, and consensus often reap anger, cynicism, and conflict instead. That’s because they have difficulty relating to others, especially those who don’t make sense of the world the way they do. Traditional images of leadership didn’t assign much value to relating. Flawless leaders shouldn’t need to seek counsel from anyone outside their tight inner circle, the thinking went, and they were expected to issue edicts rather than connect on an emotional level. Times have changed, of course, and in this era of networks, being able to build trusting relationships is a requirement of effective leadership.

Three key ways to do this are inquiring, advocating, and connecting. The concepts of inquiring and advocating stem from the work of organisational development specialists Chris Argyris and Don Schon. Inquiring means listening with the intention of genuinely understanding the thoughts and feelings of the speaker. Here, the listener suspends judgment and tries to comprehend how and why the speaker has moved from the data of his or her experiences to particular interpretations and conclusions.

Advocating, as the term implies, means explaining one’s own point of view. It is the flip side of inquiring, and it’s how leaders clarify to others how they reached their interpretations and conclusions. Good leaders distinguish their observations from their opinions and judgments and explain their reasoning without aggression or defensiveness. People with strong relating skills are typically those who’ve found a healthy balance between inquiring and advocating: They actively try to understand the views of others but are able to stand up for their own.

We’ve seen countless relationships undermined because people disproportionately emphasised advocating over inquiring. Even though managers pay lip service to the importance of mutual understanding and shared commitment to a course of action, often their real focus is on winning the argument rather than strengthening the connection. Worse, in many organisations, the imbalance goes so far that having one’s point of view prevail is what is understood as leadership.

Effective relating does not mean avoiding interpersonal conflict altogether. Argyris and Schon found that “maintaining a smooth surface” of conviviality and apparent agreement is one of the most common defensive routines that limits team effectiveness. Balancing inquiring and advocating is ultimately about showing respect, challenging opinions, asking tough questions, and taking a stand.

Consider Twynstra Gudde (TG), one of the largest independent consulting companies in the Netherlands. A few years ago, it replaced the role of CEO with a team of four managing directors who shared leadership responsibilities. Given this unique structure, it’s vital the directors effectively relate to one another. They’ve adopted simple rules, such as a requirement that each leader give his opinion on every issue, majority-rules voting, and veto power for each director.

Clearly, for TG’s senior team model to work, members must be skilled at engaging in dialogue. They continually practice both inquiring and advocating, and because each director can veto a decision, each must thoroughly explain his reasoning to convince the others’ that his perspective has merit. It’s not easy to reach this level of mutual respect and trust, but over time, the team members’ willingness to create honest connections with one another has paid off handsomely. Although they don’t always reach consensus, they are able to settle on a course of action. Since this new form of leadership was introduced TG has thrived, with the company’s profits having doubled and improved employee satisfaction levels. What’s more, TG’s leadership structure has served as a model for cooperation throughout the organisation as well as in the firm’s relations with its clients.

The third aspect of relating, connecting, involves cultivating a network of confidants who can help a leader accomplish a wide range of goals. Leaders who are strong in this capability have many people they can turn to who can help them think through difficult problems or support them in their initiatives. They understand that the time spent building and maintaining these connections is time spent investing in their leadership skills. Because no one person can possibly have all the answers, or indeed, know all the right questions to ask, it’s crucial that leaders be able to tap into a network of people who can fill in the gaps.


Sensemaking and relating can be called the enabling capabilities of leadership. They help set the conditions that motivate and sustain change. The next two leadership capabilities - what we call “visioning” and inventing - are creative and action oriented. They produce the focus and energy needed to make change happen. Visioning involves creating compelling images of the future. While sensemaking charts a map of what is, visioning produces a map of what could be and, more importantly, what a leader wants the future to be.

It consists of far more than pinning a vision statement to the wall. Indeed, a shared vision is not a static thing - it’s an ongoing process. Like sensemaking, visioning is dynamic and collaborative, a process of articulating what the members of an organisation want to create together.

Fundamentally, visioning gives people a sense of meaning in their work. Leaders who are skilled in this capability are able to get people excited about their view of the future while inviting others to help crystallise that image.

If they realise other people aren’t joining in or buying into the vision, they don’t just turn up the volume; they engage in a dialogue about the reality they hope to produce. They use stories and metaphors to paint a vivid picture of what the vision will accomplish, even if they don’t have a comprehensive plan for getting there. They know that if the vision is credible and compelling enough, others will generate ideas to advance it.

Leaders who excel in visioning walk the walk; they work to embody the core values and ideas contained in the vision.

Darcy Winslow, Nike’s global director for women’s footwear, is a good example. A 14-year veteran at Nike, Winslow previously held the position of general manager of sustainable business opportunities at the shoe and apparel giant. Her work in that role reflected her own core values, including her passion for the environment. “We had come to see that our customers’ health and our own ability to compete were inseparable from the health of the environment,” she says. So she initiated the concept of ecologically, intelligent product design.

Winslow’s team worked at determining the chemical composition and environmental effects of every material and process Nike used. They visited factories in China and collected samples of rubber, leather, nylon, polyester and foams to determine their chemical makeup. This led Winslow and her team to develop a list of “positive” materials - those that weren’t harmful to the environment - that they hoped to use in more Nike products. “Environmental sustainability” was no longer just an abstract term on a vision statement; the team now felt a mandate to realise the vision.


Even the most compelling vision will lose its power if it floats, unconnected, above the everyday reality of organisational life. To transform a vision of the future into a present-day reality, leaders need to devise processes that will give it life. This inventing is what moves a business from the abstract world of ideas to the concrete world of implementation. In fact, inventing is similar to execution, but the label “inventing” emphasises that this process often requires creativity to help people figure out new ways of working together.

To realise a new vision, people usually can’t keep doing the same things they’ve been doing. They need to conceive, design, and put into practice new ways of interacting and organising. Some of the most famous examples of large-scale organisational innovation come from the automotive industry: Henry Ford’s conception of the assembly-line factory and Toyota’s famed integrated production system.

More recently, Pierre Omidyar, when founding eBay, invented a new way of doing large-scale retailing. His vision was of an online community where users would take responsibility for what happened.

In a 2001 BusinessWeek Online interview, Omidyar explained, “I had the idea that I wanted to create an efficient market and a level playing field where everyone had equal access to information. I wanted to give the power of the market back to individuals, not just large corporations. That was the driving motivation for creating eBay at the start.”

Consequently, eBay outsources most of the functions of traditional retailing - purchasing, order fulfilment, and customer service, for example - to independent sellers worldwide. The company estimates that more than 430,000 people make their primary living from selling wares on eBay. If those individuals were all employees of eBay, it would be the second largest private employer in the US after Wal-Mart.

The people who work through eBay are essentially independent store owners, and, as such, they have a huge amount of autonomy in how they do their work. They decide what to sell, when to sell it, how to price, and how to advertise. Coupled with this individual freedom is global scale. EBay’s infrastructure enables them to sell their goods all over the world. What makes eBay’s inventing so radical is that it represents a new relationship between an organisation and its parts. Unlike typical outsourcing, eBay doesn’t pay its retailers - they pay the company.

Balancing the four capabilities

Sensemaking, relating, visioning, and inventing are interdependent. Without sensemaking, there’s no common view of reality from which to start. Without relating, people work in isolation or, worse, strive toward different aims. Without visioning, there’s no shared direction. And without inventing, a vision remains illusory. No one leader, however, will excel at all four capabilities in equal measure.

Typically, leaders are strong in one or two capabilities. Intel chairman Andy Grove is the quintessential sensemaker, for instance, with a gift for recognising strategic inflection points that can be exploited for competitive advantage.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs is a visionary whose ambitious dreams and persuasiveness have catalysed remarkable successes for Apple, Next, and Pixar. Meg Whitman, the CEO of eBay, helped bring Pierre Omidyar’s vision of online retailing to life by inventing ways to deal with security, vendor reliability, and product diversification.

Once leaders diagnose their own capabilities, identifying their unique set of strengths and weaknesses, they must search for others who can provide what they are missing. Leaders who only choose people who mirror themselves are likely to find their organisations tilting in one direction, missing one or more essential capabilities needed to survive in a changing, complex world. That’s why it’s important to examine the whole organisation to make sure it is appropriately balanced as well. It’s the leader’s responsibility to create an environment that lets people complement one another’s strengths and offset one another’s weaknesses. In this way, leadership is distributed across multiple people throughout the organisation.

Years ago, one of us attended a three-day meeting on leadership with 15 top managers from different companies. At the close of it, participants were asked to reflect on their experience as leaders. One executive, responsible for more than 50,000 people in his division of a manufacturing corporation, drew two pictures on a flip chart. The image on the left was what he projected to the outside world: It was a large, intimidating face holding up a huge fist. The image on the right represented how he saw himself: A small face with wide eyes, hair standing on end, and an expression of sheer terror.

We believe that most leaders experience that profound dichotomy every day, and it’s a heavy burden. How many times have you feigned confidence to superiors or reports when you were really unsure? Have you ever felt comfortable conceding that you were confused by the latest business results or caught off guard by a competitor’s move? Would you ever admit to feeling inadequate to cope with the complex issues your firm was facing? Anyone who can identify with these situations knows first-hand what it’s like to be trapped in the myth of the complete leader - the person at the top without flaws. It’s time to put that myth to rest, not only for the sake of frustrated leaders but also for the health of organisations. Even the most talented leaders require the input and leadership of others, constructively solicited and creatively applied. It’s time to celebrate the incomplete - that is, the human-leader.

Harvard Business Review

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