dcsimg Expert: The perfect leader is fiction - Ramboll Group

Expert: The perfect leader is fiction

Interview. Authors of mainstream business literature stand in line to announce the secret recipe for becoming the perfect leader. An innovative way of thinking buries this formula and salutes the imperfect. Management expert Jacob Storch believes that imperfect leadership is ‘as good as it gets’.

Management expert Jacob Storch believes that imperfect leadership is 'as good as it gets'

As a leading engineering and consultancy company, Ramboll knows how to build bridges over troubled waters. But it takes more than a talented engineer to bridge the opposing views that crystallise while browsing through traditional literature and listening to Jacob Storch.  He is a Director at Ramboll Management Consulting, a PhD, an author, and a father just to name a few of his roles. We will get back to what being a father has to do with imperfect leadership.

Even if Jacob Storch as a systemic practitioner is not preoccupied with right and wrong, there seems to be a Grand Canyon-wide gap between the notion of imperfect leadership and mainstream business literature, such as 7 Habits of Highly Effective People or Leadership DNA. In addition to the rising business press, leaders and CEOs are glorified and their characteristics imitated across the globe. But these authors commit a categorical error, claims Storch.

"If you ask 100 different leaders about the features that define the perfect leader, none of these characteristics would fit any of them. It’s a generalised notion that can’t be used in any particular practice. This idealised perfection can’t re-emerge in the real world, because it doesn’t derive from it – it derives from fiction", says Jacob Storch and continues: 

"To the contrary, I try to take the real world more seriously by focusing on the incidents of leadership, because this is where leadership emerges. I’ve met plenty of successful leaders, and it has made me realise that there’re many ways to be good enough or perfectly imperfect. To succeed as a leader means to act in accordance with your surroundings".

Imperfect or good enough?

For years, many leaders have struggled to accept the idea that you cannot be successful in all domains. A similar view has not yet hit the pedestaled portraying of inspirational business leaders. Failure is not an option since leaders are people in privileged and well-paid positions. However, there is something truly liberating about the notion of imperfect or ‘good enough’ leadership:

"To view leadership as imperfect is to see both the leader and the task of leading as fundamentally unfinished activities with certain stories that are basically limited by time and circumstance. I mean, to recognise that the conditions under which we act and make practical judgements are incomplete. That is as good as it gets", Storch says. He continues:   

"Difficulties all too often occur because some leaders get so stuck in a story or an incident that they due to their position and title are supposed to respond to. I like to believe that it is not the leader who creates leadership – it is leadership that creates the leader. To think of leadership as something that belongs to a person is to make the fundamental misjudgement that you as a leader are independent of your surroundings. You’re not".

The parental parameter

‘You are not a parent without a child’, says Storch. Not exactly a logical argument at PhD level, but when transferred to the world of leadership, the metaphor becomes obvious. The employee creates the leader and leadership is what goes on between people.

"Parenting is not an easy task and you constantly have to revise your strategies and practices, based on the feedback you get and the effects of your work. The same goes for leadership. Making such a claim is also to start reflecting on where leadership takes place. People often miss the basic point that leadership is what goes on in relationships between people in organisations. In these relations, we try to coordinate, make sense of and move on together in ways that seem best under the current circumstances".

Why a leader should not always take the lead

One may ask why a leader should not just take the lead? In other words, take charge of the decisions and choose the way forward without hampering the process by consulting the employees time and again.

"Here’s an example that contradicts the directive approach. The efficiency of Japanese factories is a result of continued concern with re-evaluating processes and practices, and about having more than one way of doing things. The concern of leadership should be to keep engaging the community in ways that provide conditions for novelty and innovation to become today’s norm", Storch argues.

The innovative shortcomings

The leadership expert has experienced clashing concerns in many corporations. Like they are having their cake and eating it too. Today, organisations are stretched by discursive landscapes asking employees to perform in ways that appear contradictory.

"I have often witnessed organisations that fall short on innovation although they have called for more creativity and new ways of thinking. But employees have to comply with standards set by the executive management to remain loyal to the governance structures. This actively works against collaborative and responsive dialogue and engagement, which again is essential to creating the conditions for innovation", Storch says. 

According to Jacob Storch, a central factor to encourage people to improve at orienting, relating and judging in everyday activities is the way in which leadership facilitates the ongoing dialogue in the organisation; that is to establish a fundamental belief that we as humans and organisations are unfinished and incomplete. Or even imperfect.