A Perfect Example of Imperfect Leadership

It was a perfect example of imperfect leadership. It was also an example of a leader having the courage to stand up and publicly admit a mistake.

This week I was part of a townhall meeting designed to help grow the community by engaging a cross section of stakeholders. As a result of the discussion, it became apparent the town was poised on a precipice. In many ways a bedroom community for a nearby larger municipality, the town had the advantage of proximity to amenities but lacked a clear understanding of what made them unique and authentic. Because they weren’t quite sure what kind of community they wanted to be, over the next few years they will likely face the risk of being absorbed as a suburb of the encroaching city. It soon became apparent to everyone at the meeting that the most pressing issue for their town was this lack of a vision and identity.

That’s where things got a bit sticky. As it turns out, municipal staff had recently led an exercise that had resulted in a vision for the town. Unfortunately it seemed to be a well kept secret. Asking for a show of hands for those who were aware of the vision or had been part of its design, not a single hand was raised.

As the meeting drew to a close, the facilitator invited participants to share one thing they were going to do differently the next day. As it turns out, one of the directors at townhall who had led the planning exercise that resulted in the vision no one knew about, was in the room. To her credit, this woman stood up and acknowledged her role. She then went on to say, “We missed the boat. If none of you know about this vision, we got it wrong. A vision is essential for our town, it guides our decision making every day but if you haven’t heard about it, we have a lot of work to do. Tomorrow I start to rectify that mistake and invite each of you to help me out”.

Her delivery was real, honest and heartfelt as was the loud applause that followed.

Rather than seeing her as being an ineffective leader, every person in that room was moved by her courage to resist the temptation to deny the situation, blame others, or make up excuses. She demonstrated integrity by owning the responsibility for the mistaken direction and as a result gained the respect and trust of those in the room. 

While that sounds relatively simple to do, it clearly wasn’t. We all saw the emotion on her face and heard it in her voice. It was though, a wonderful lesson in leadership because ultimately leadership is about learning and change. We all were reminded that successful learning involves analyzing the past and acting differently in the future. And if learning is about change, we all learned that to lead change we all need to accept that we’re human and that change rarely comes without us making mistakes along the way.

The situation also reinforced that it is only through mistakes that we learn. We rarely learn through our success. Failure sets us up to learn. In this case, the director will no doubt figure out that a community’s vision can’t be driven by city hall. Instead it will need to be citizen driven and owned if it is to be embraced and implemented.

A leader truly is one who has the moxy to admit mistakes, learn from them, and then be strong enough to correct them. After all is said and done, we often discover the best way to do things is by learning what doesn’t work. And, if we don’t make mistakes, chances are we’ll never find the innovative solutions we will need to ultimately get it right.

Posted on 03-06-10


Brenda, I really like the specific example of what community leadership is about!  I feel like I was in the room; listening to the person describing her mistake, what she learned from it, and what she plans to do.  A fantastic story of a community leader really “leading”, a group of community residents willing to comment and then help, and a facilitator who asked the right question to enable the leader to share her insights.

•Posted by Barb Pedersen  on  03/08/10  at  08:06 AM

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