In Praise of the Incomplete Leader
  • Jayne McQuillan

In Praise of the Incomplete Leader

Updated: Jan 9, 2019



We've talked about strategy and strategy execution, but in order to do any of that, you first need leadership. In reading an article from the Harvard Business Review titled In Praise of the Incomplete Leader, I think the challenge of leadership was clearly summarized.

 "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." (Feb 2007, HBR)

It's time to end the myth of the complete leader: the flawless person at the top who's got it all figured out. In fact, the sooner leaders stop trying to be all things to all people, the better off their organizations 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 organization. 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.


No one person could possibly stay on top of everything. But the myth of the complete leader (and the fear of appearing incompetent) makes many executives try to do just that, exhausting themselves and damaging their organizations 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 organizational hierarchy-wherever expertise, vision, new ideas, and commitment are found.


As stated in the article, leadership is a set of four capabilities: sensemaking (understanding the context in which a company and its people operate), relating (building relationships within and across organizations), visioning (creating a compelling picture of the future), and inventing (developing new ways to achieve the vision).

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.


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 firsthand 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 organizations. 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.


"In Praise of the Incomplete Leader."  Harvard Business Review Feb. 2007: Print


Jayne McQuillan, CPA, MBA, CEPA is a strategic management consultant, and the owner of Journey Consulting, LLC, in Green Bay



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