Lately our expectations of leaders have gone through the roof.
We expect leaders to be strong and brave and kind and calm and smart and curious and inspiring and consistent and composed and knowledgeable and organised and compassionate and friendly and attentive and vulnerable and outgoing and innovative and confident and resilient and driven and thoughtful and articulate and positive and flexible and decisive. And we expect them to be these things every day, whatever the circumstances and however they’re feeling.
We also expect leaders to make the right decisions – based not so much on the soundness of their logic, but on how much these choices suit us. When we ask our managers to meet our requests for flexible work or for time off we expect them to say yes. And if we have a particular position on a complex issue of public policy we criticise state and national leaders who apply a different approach.
Our lofty expectations of leaders have been more evident than ever during this pandemic. Public leaders and Chief Health Officers, who have worked extraordinary hours and made great sacrifices, have been roundly criticised, almost as though the biological disaster of the pandemic is somehow their fault. And leaders in organisations, who have had to step up and adapt rapidly to new and challenging circumstances, have faced higher expectations than ever.
Of course, there are leaders whose actions and motivations are dishonourable, but I believe these are in the minority. Based on what I have seen most leaders are hardworking, good people who are doing their best to make things better for the organisations and communities they serve.
Of course, even the best leaders have their flaws. They can be inconsistent and disorganised and forgetful and cautious and moody and distracted and stressed and short-sighted and defensive and busy and unclear and indecisive and over-confident and hard-to-please. And it’s inevitable that some of the choices leaders make will turn out poorly. This is not because they’re bad people, but because they are human. Good leaders will develop and improve themselves, but there will always be shortcomings.
We understand that people are fallible and accept that they will make mistakes, but we seem to apply a different standard when we look at our leaders. We want our leaders to be perfect and when they fall short of this standard (as they inevitably will) we are all too quick to complain.
Whatever the role, the job of a leader is very difficult. They need to deliver results in situations of high complexity and high workloads, while wrestling with their own set of human frailties and imperfections. Unrealistic expectations of leaders and constant criticism don’t help. It just makes the job more difficult as leaders second-guess themselves and move into survival mode.
Let’s stop being so hard on our leaders, dial down the criticism and dial up the support. Let’s give them some benefit of the doubt and look for their positive intent. If we do we may well find that the leader we were critical of yesterday begins to appear quite a bit more impressive tomorrow.