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Favour the flawed – Why schools need imperfect leadership

Instead of embarking on a fruitless quest to become a ‘perfect leader’, you can achieve far more for yourself and your school by embracing imperfection, advises Marie-Claire Bretherton

Marie-Claire Bretherton
by Marie-Claire Bretherton
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Have you ever been led by a perfect leader? Do you work in a school where the leaders always get it right, 100% of the time? Do you get it right 100% of the time?

The truth is that there’s no perfect school, no perfect leader and no perfect teacher. We all know that, really.

The problem with perfection

Perfectionism is a problem. When we aim for perfection, we’re usually driven by concerns relating to what people around us might think about us. We can find ourselves trapped in a world of comparison.

I confess that I sometimes catch myself scrolling through Twitter, marvelling at the wise and witty things people seem able to cram into 280 characters, and feeling a little ‘less than’ for my poor attempts at contributing to threads. (How do you write the perfect tweet!?) It’s even worse on Instagram – so many perfect houses, perfect gardens and perfect holidays!

Why is it that we are so uncomfortable with being imperfect? Is it because we see imperfection as a failure? Is it because we feel ashamed of the ways in which we aren’t perfect? Or do we view our mistakes as personal defects in a world of perfect people?

The truth is that we are all imperfect.

Restless learners

In our new book, Imperfect Leadership in Action, Steve Munby and I outline 10 characteristics of what we call the ‘imperfect leadership mindset’ – 10 ways in which leaders who know that they’re imperfect can create strong foundations for personal growth and development, as well as organisational and team success.

It starts with self-awareness. Leaders who know they’re imperfect are open to examining their leadership, and exploring how they’re perceived and received by those they lead. Because they’re secure in their ‘imperfect leadership’, they can acknowledge their strengths and their weaknesses, without fear that they have to be good at everything and know everything.

Yet despite this, they’re still restless learners at heart – always seeking to develop and grow. They cultivate curiosity and ask great questions. Their aim is to know more tomorrow than they did today, and to be a better version of themselves tomorrow than they are today.

Since they know their own strengths and weaknesses well, they’re able to develop and empower great teams of people around them who possess complimentary skills and strengths. They aren’t threatened by other people’s successes, skills, contributions, and achievements. In fact, they’re keenly aware of their responsibility to develop more great leaders, who can then step up and make a difference in our schools and colleges in the future.

What’s more, the leaders they develop don’t need to be perfect either. Instead, they will go on to coach and mentor new future leaders in turn, helping them to develop similar levels of self-awareness and growth as imperfect leaders themselves.

Telling it like it is

Imperfect leaders manage their egos well. They each have what we describe as a ‘healthy ego’ – not too big, and not too small. No-one wants to be led by someone who’s insecure and needs constant reassurance and ego-massages, but neither do we want to be led by someone with an over-inflated ego that leaves little room for others to contribute.

Imperfect leaders hold the middle ground with a balance of confidence and humility. They’re neither overwhelmed, nor overbearing. They’re happy to be in the limelight, but also to take a backseat when the occasion demands.

Leaders who know they’re imperfect are quick to admit their mistakes, and even quicker to put things right when they get something wrong. They don’t need to cover up their mistakes and pretend they haven’t happened. They’re able to tell it like it is and admit ‘That didn’t work,’ or ‘I’m sorry, I got that wrong.’ They view mistakes and failures as opportunities for learning and improvement.

If we think that we have to be perfect all the time, we can find ourselves becoming too scared to make a decision in case it’s not the perfect decision. Or too scared to try a new approach, for fear of it not being flawlessly executed first time. Being imperfect means knowing at any given moment that all we can do is make the best decision we can, given the information we have at the time.

Asking for help

Imperfect leaders are deeply committed to doing the right thing and are authentic. They know themselves well, and they have moral purpose. This means they’re able to make difficult decisions when needed, in order to do the right thing by the children and young people they serve.

Finally, imperfect leaders are quick to ask for help from others. They will ask for input and ideas, and even encourage others to share opposing opinions or disagree with them. In the words of Sue Belton, headteacher of a school in Lincolnshire that’s part of the KYRA teaching and leadership partnership, “No school is an island, no leader is enough on their own.” Imperfect leaders are aware of this, and will therefore reach out and ask others to support, challenge and guide them, knowing that they will make better decisions as a result.

We all want to be led by leaders determined to do all they can to make a positive difference to the lives of children and young people. Leaders who create a culture where the whole team thrives and succeeds. Leaders who follow through on what they say they’ll do. But we don’t need ‘perfect’ leaders.

What we need is more authentic imperfect leaders who will consistently ask, ‘How can I improve?’ and are open enough to hear the answer and act on it. This is the kind of leadership I believe we need more of in our schools and colleges.

For any aspiring leaders reading this – we need you! You don’t need to be perfect. On the contrary, being an imperfect leader will open up a whole new world of learning for you.

In his 2012 poem ‘Looking for the Castle, Second Time Around’, William Ayot describes the realisation of knowing when it’s time to put away our self-doubt and step forward along the path before us: “It is time to stop looking upwards at others / What you have is enough / What you are is ready…”

Marie-Claire Bretherton is a former headteacher, now director of school improvement for Anthem Schools Trust, and education director for the teaching, leadership, research and school improvement partnerships community KYRA; for more information, visit or follow @AnthemTrust

Imperfect Leadership in Action – A book for leaders who know they don’t know it all is co-authored by Bretherton and Steve Munby and is available now (Crown House Publishing, £20)

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