Imperfect Leadership – a #LeadWithGiants Twitterchat

If there was such a thing as a perfect business, we’d see it. In fact, we’d see plenty of them, because the perfection would show up in formulas and spreadsheets that would be copied over and over. The right way would be obvious—a benchmark by which all others would be measured.

But perfect is elusive.

Perfect leadership is not elusive because it’s unachievable. It’s elusive because there are so many options—so many conflicting styles, attitudes and opportunities—for leadership and so many diverse styles of teams. Great leaders make it work with whatever is available at the time and the values anchoring their actions. We are, after all, human.

Without fail, every single organization I get the opportunity to assess has some form of dysfunction—systems, processes, people or policies that are unconventional at best, outright chaotic at worst. From an outsider’s perspective, it’s easy to see this dysfunction and the textbook solution.

The logical next step is to open the fabled ‘Book of Best Practices’ (a best-seller among business consultant blowhards) and correct the offending issue with a smug sense of superiority. Simple. Right. Billable.

But I have also come to realize the tricky balance that exists within every organization, and certainly within the dynamic world of change and growth. There is always a healthy, balanced dysfunction found in Imperfect Leadership.

Somewhere in the gap between ‘perfect-best-practices’ and ‘fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants’ is an organization’s ‘Normal’. It’s the place of personalities, habits and comfort zones. It’s the place where the business model—infused with the culture, climate and community—meshes nicely with the market opportunity. Disrupt this individual balance and the storm of unintended consequences will overwhelm any attempts at problem solving.

But problems—if they are truly holding the organization back from achieving its goals—have to be solved. And such is the dilemma of Imperfect Leadership.

Strong leadership recognizes the positive dysfunction of imperfection without ignoring—or excusing—the dysfunction that is holding them back. It’s a deep sense of honesty and self-reflection—an in-your-face reality check—that true leaders invite every single day.

Leaders must recognize and embrace their balance of dysfunction—recognizing it as balanced dysfunction—and acknowledge their chaos before we can accurately define and address the results of such chaos (their problems). Leaders must admit that they have grown into their chaos and have created systems and procedures to accommodate the dysfunction—it’s not normal, it’s just their normal. Leaders must dig deep and admit that the problem is really a problem—regardless of how deeply ingrained it is within the culture—and commit to change. Leaders must honestly connect-the-dots of ‘cause and effect’ to meet the challenges of change.

Leaders must also defend without compromise any balanced dysfunction they are unwilling to change, and accept the consequence openly. Ignoring the dysfunction is reckless, but defending it in service of goals AND values is actually very powerful.

Accepting the dysfunction is the first step. Admitting that the dysfunction is actually masquerading as an irreversible system is the tipping point. However, honouring your individual dysfunction is the power of Imperfect Leadership.

Strong brand strategy accepts Imperfect Leadership—all it’s flaws and value—as the reality before correcting the problems. Strong brand strategy embraces the functional dysfunction—the style and attitudes that feed the necessary culture —in order to confront the hindering dysfunction.

Strong leaders know honouring your individual dysfunction is the first step to finding a solution that will actually take hold and effect change and growth. Strong brand leadership is comfortable with Imperfect Leadership.


I invite you to be part of the Twitter discussion, Monday Aug 3rd at 4pm PST, #LeadWithGiants. Really smart people will test my theory and explore the insights shared by everyone. These are the intended question, but the conversation could go anywhere. Feel free to add your thoughts here, too.

Q1 Is there such a thing as “perfect leadership”?

Q2 Is the notion of ‘Imperfect Leadership’ just an excuse for poor or weak leadership?

Q3 How does accepting ‘Imperfect Leadership’ add value to our organizations?

Q4 What happens when we confront ‘Imperfect Leadership’ with formulaic Best-Practices solutions?

Q5 Are there any behaviours that are unacceptable, even if labeled “imperfect”?

Q6 How do we recognize the difference b/w ‘Imperfect Leadership’ and poor or weak habits in order to affect change?

Q7 Who are some famous ‘Imperfect Leaders’?

Q8 Have you recognized your own balanced dysfunction? What is unconventional for you, but works in your favour?

Do you know your Culture Gateways?

Bringing new people into your organization is an important (and inevitable) part of growth. Each new person is affected by—and affects—the culture of your brand. Leaders with a clear understanding of their brand strategy have hired people according to core values, and the result is a deeper, richer culture.

New employees meet existing teams, find connections, and work together in task and attitude towards a shared purpose. The brand continues to thrive.

Theoretically, it works seamlessly. Realistically, new people are outsiders until they are trusted by the team—not the implied trust of carrying the same banner, but rather the type of trust that is earned through shared experiences and challenges; through learning about each other as people, not just roles in the organization.

Feed Your CultureEach organization finds unique ways teams connect. There are no rules, limits or fool-proof best practices for finding the trust every team requires. For some it’s social events; for others it is working through a full cycle of a project or deadline together; for others there are relevant (or obscure) rituals and milestones that need to be reached. For many it’s a mix of a few things.

An organizational culture is inevitable. Too often, though, it is often accidental and thriving on the path of least resistance. Who is feeding your culture?

As a leader, do you know the Culture Gateways for your organization? Do you understand—and make time for—the events and rituals that your culture asks of itself? Do you feed your culture, or do you expect it to live off whatever filters through the burden of productivity?

New employees can get overwhelmed during even the most thoughtful on-boarding process. New policies, new peers, new possibilities—there is plenty of new information pushing towards fresh members of your team and it’s easy to let the culture component occur accidentally.

Smart brand leaders understand that when new employees integrate into the culture quickly, smoothly, honestly and enthusiastically, the benefits are exponentially greater. Trust—the deep trust required to push boundaries, challenge ideas, and risk authentically—is reached sooner. The value and influence of true teams is realized.

Smart brand leaders understand and encourage the Culture Gateways that are required by the organization. Whether true planning is required, or simply giving permission and getting out of the way, leaders recognize the resources required—time, space, workload, stuff—and not only let it happen, they make sure it happens. It’s purposeful and measured, not accidental. Smart brand leaders know they get the culture they nurture, and the right culture is at the foundation of brand success.

Embracing Culture Gateways—the launch pad to the human side of on-boarding and a rich brand culture—is critical to building a strong brand and is not left to chance. Do you know the Culture Gateways of your brand strategy?

Are you on a Mission Statement, Part Two

Part One was simple. Sometimes there is more enthusiasm for writing a great mission statement than passion for actually achieving anything of substance. Without real purpose—without actually being on a mission—you’re probably just another run-of-the-mill brand at the mercy of the simplest competitive forces.

So if Part One is about a lack of real conviction to something greater, Part Two is about too much. So much passion, in fact, that the clear purpose of the organization is lost in translation. This time, ‘Are you on a Mission Statement’ is about the consequence of living your mission in passionate isolation.

Very often—and perhaps more so in the social change community—organizations use their mission statement to show heightened conviction and sophistication. Eloquent mission statements are a strategic badge of honour—rising above the riff-raff and outpacing their peers—elevating the organization above anything conventional or corporate. Mission statements become a passion filled, jargon laced, verbal vomit of words peppered with a secret code of industry rhetoric. Only those who already share in the passion and knowledge will even remotely understand the purpose, let alone its capacity to deliver on the promise. People are so deeply entrenched in their passion they are only preaching to the converted; anything less feels too pedestrian.

A good Mission Statement is not just for us; a mission statement should help everyone else understand what to expect. No one should hear your mission statement and think, “…so what do you actually do?”

If people are still unclear about what your organization does—the tangible value it brings—upon hearing your mission statement, then it’s time to let go of the words and dig back into the purpose.

A good mission statement—an effective statement—should be inspirational, of course. More importantly, though, it should also be clear, persuasive, and action-oriented. A good mission statement should provide outsiders—yes, outsiders—with enough information to be motivated to support your cause. They should want to join with you (or be competitively concerned about your arrival), be clear on what will probably come next, and how they can be part of that success.

It’s easy to get excited about mission statements, especially when the mission is something deeply important. The mission statement is a cultural and communication anchor—an vitally important part of any strong brand strategy. But it is just a tool to use—it’s of no value if it doesn’t first inform and persuade.

A great mission should inspire a great Brand Strategy. A great mission statement should simply inform people of your mission.

For a strong brand, let’s define our values early.

Our organization is going to hire people as it grows. These new people will likely be very skilled and talented, and shortly they will become an integral part of our team. They’re given responsibility, and they make tough decisions that help our business. Some of these decisions have deep implications on the future success of our organization.

The decisions every one of our employees make reflect the values of our organization. No exceptions. When the organization is just beginning, it’s easy to push the task of ‘defining core values’ off to the side as a time-consuming and irrelevant exercise. After all, we probably feel pretty strongly connected to these people in the excited glow of a start-up. We’re probably confident that we’re all on the same page, values-wise, when it comes to making tough decisions. Taking the time to define core values—behaviours that will drive our competitive advantage—feels like a bit of a fluffy exercise when there is real work to be done.

And we all know that a corporate retreat to define (or redefine) an organization’s Core Values is also very common. Everyone does these retreats, we observe, so obviously it’s okay to wait until we really need to define this one detail. Maybe in a few months; possibly next year. It won’t hurt, really.

If we wait until we feel the strategic need to define our values, it is too late.

If we wait until our team is 10, 30 or 80 people before we take the time to define our values—the behaviours that drive the culture of our organization—we may discover that some of those awesome staff don’t quite fit. In fact, it’s probably now an issue because there is a conflict, and now we feel the pressure of dysfunction. So now we have a very tough choice; define broad reaching values that have no impact, keep everyone employed and regularly compromise on our stated values, or fire those who don’t fit.

Broad reaching values are effectively ignored. Values so wide-reaching in scope or obvious in intent that any action can be manipulated to fit are uninspiring and weak. Be clear on this: if our values don’t stand for something compelling, our brand is simply irrelevant.

Compromising on our stated values is ill-advised. Values define the culture of the organization, and our culture is how we attract and retain top talent; it’s is how people choose our brand over our competitor. If we only refer to our values when it suits us—if we only stand for something when it’s easy and popular but cave when the going gets tough—then people question our integrity and our commitment to our vision.

Telling an employee that they no longer fit the culture of the organization is tough. Terminating them as a result is tougher (and potentially illegal). But if their natural instincts—remember, core values are non-negotiable behaviours and our default actions when things get tough—conflict with what we promise to customers—all stakeholders, in fact—we are simply weakening our brand, and any value it adds to our organization, if we keep them employed.

If we decide that generosity is important and a value for our culture, we are going to need to be sure the rock-star accountant who approves and holds us to our budgets agrees. We need everyone on board to connect the dots between philanthropy and profitability.

If we believe that an open-door policy is the best way to create trust between leaders and their teams, we need to ensure every leader respects this style, and thrives within it.

If we believe in a healthy work-life balance, we need to plan accordingly and respect choices even when deadlines loom, timelines collide and schedules don’t quite overlap.

Our culture is the pool of values shared, embraced, accepted and rewarded among all of our team. Our culture is how values show up and support the goals and vision of the organization. Strong brands hire and retain people based on well defined and authentic values,  and those values actively and subconsciously permeate all aspects of the brand.

Strong brands defined their core values at the very beginning. 

The uncomfortable allure of the Brand Evangelist.

Plenty of talk these days about the importance of Brand Evangelists. Or Ambassadors. Or Employee Advocates or, …minions.

I’ll admit the idea makes me uncomfortable. Not because I don’t think employees should be outwardly proud of where they work, or that the ‘brand Kool-Aid’ is poison. And it’s not because I don’t think that the employees—people directly connected to delivering the brand experience—aren’t some of the most valuable champions of the brand. Plenty of great organizations benefit from authentic, internal cheerleaders.

But from where I sit, the prevailing push behind ‘evangelists as strategy’ wisdom conflate enthusiasm against obligation in the realm of social media, underscored with the ugly falsehood that social media is “free”. It’s empty as a strategy—unmeasurable and accidental if truly authentic. To top it off, all of this is happening just as we’re moving towards greater transparency and accountability from leaders.

I believe pure brand evangelists—the concept—are a tremendous value. They mark a significant success in your brand strategy. I disagree, however, that expecting all employees to perform on social media—demanding, even—is smart strategy. And I believe that compelling them to perform is disingenuous; a slap in the face of the very authenticity good leadership is striving to achieve.

The strategy for any organization should be to create opportunities, not obligations, to share content and experiences. Organizations should trust employees to respond appropriately—as an insider in the community—and arm them with relevant contributions (or at least give them access). The strategy should leverage enthusiasm, not attempt to create it.

The strategy for any organization should be to create a SoMe profile that borrows from the people who accept the role of monitoring and responding. Their individuality will enhance the brand, not distract from it, and it should be clear that the brand is the anchor of the engagement.

The strategy for any organization should be to create a culture rooted in pride and enthusiasm. The organization should be passionate about transparency, ensuring that the Evangelist mindset has access to content and insights, and isn’t blindsided by facts outside their control or knowledge. Nothing screams ‘faker or flakey’ like an ill-informed insider.

The strategy for any organization should be to think beyond marketing, and let any department show up in relevant social media channels, sharing and learning. There are countless communities that would appreciate authentic participation—engagement that moves the whole community forward—not just the “sell”.

The strategy for any organization should not be to overlay ‘evangelist’ into every job description and expect everyone to blur their personal and professional profiles to serve the organization. The strategy must not have vague expectations nor imply unrewarded activity. The strategy must never compromise anyone’s integrity, and the organization doesn’t get to decide when such concern is valid.

Brand Evangelism is a result of your culture, not a technique to create one.

If your organization benefits from employees who freely promote, support, defend and engage, then you can thank a strong culture, not a ‘Brand Evangelist Strategy’. You’ve invested in people you can trust and depend on, and now you get to reap the rewards. In fact, if you have truly developed a culture worthy of brand evangelists, good luck stopping them from engaging beyond your expectations.

However, if you find you must request ‘evangelism’ from your team—or worse, demand it—then you haven’t earned the value that the phenomenon of the ‘brand evangelists’ offers. You don’t understand the concept, because if you haven’t taken the time to nurture the culture, good luck trying to get any authentic evangelists at all.

And authentic brand evangelists is really all that matters.

Follow the Leader

In this world of expert teams—groups of people who are each smart enough and wise enough to lead—it is ever more important to follow with integrity.

While we routinely debate the merits and qualities of leadership and its impact on productivity, often missing from the conversation is the importance and obligation of true teamwork; following the leader.

If we expect good leaders trust their teams, it is only logical that good teams trust their leader.

When an individual is given the title of leader—both the glory and the burden of being accountable for results—it becomes imperative for teams to acknowledge and support the leader.

Too often when uncovering the problems with teams, it comes down to followers who aren’t quite willing to follow. Every plan has a flaw; every decision meets a “yes, but…”; every criticism has an excuse. Poor followers are caught up in their own ego, more concerned with eventually being the saviour of the situation (a perceived need, not a real need) than trusting that the leader is making good choices. Poor followers aren’t really following. They are riding the coattails to success—going through the motions with an agenda all their own.

  • Poor followers gather information but hold it close for personal gain.
  • Poor followers agree in their words but reject in their actions.
  • Poor followers fixate on the plan without focus on the goal.
  • Poor followers stand among the team but have an agenda of self-preservation.
  • Poor followers believe they have the wisdom to lead, but lack the courage to risk leadership.
  • Poor followers are eager to hear feedback, but quick to find excuses.

Ultimately, poor followers lack conviction, and let apathy and arrogance undermine their actions. Failure becomes a self fulfilling prophecy; not because the plan lacked strategy or leadership lacked ability, but simply because the they didn’t fulfill their follower role with integrity.

This isn’t about blind allegiance, or recklessly abandoning good sense and objectivity. There is a time and place for questions and contradiction; there is room for tough discussion in search of excellence; it is important to disrupt the status quo. But when planning transitions to action, and everything that we’ve prepared for is on the line, it is time to let leaders lead, and support them—support the whole team—by acting as an excellent follower.

Know the goals and know the plan; share information; respect decisions; act with conviction.

Strong Brand Strategy is rooted in leadership and trust. It takes teams of people committed to a common purpose, unafraid to tackle the challenges of bringing their vision to light, but also unafraid to work together. Strong brands demand diligent teamwork. If we truly expect leaders to lead with integrity, it is only fair that leaders expect followers to follow with integrity, too.

Brand Strategy for the Next Generation

A while back I wrote “Brand Strategy for Entrepreneurs”, and it was a popular post. Those traits are still relevant as the business grows, but now we’ll need to dig deeper. I offer “Brand Strategy for the Next Generation”, when an organization with momentum decides it’s time to take it to the next level.

So your business has grown. Good for you. Now your organization has some momentum, a little bit of revenue, and you’ve decided that renewed attention to the brand strategy will add value. This is a smart move.

It’s healthy to want to revisit the brand strategy. Perhaps some old initiatives feel disjointed and out of sync with evolving goals; perhaps growth isn’t happening as fast as you want; perhaps the organization has grown a little too fast and the brand feels out of control or out of focus. Something is not right and you believe Brand Strategy is the solution. Here’s how I know you’re ready.

You know Brand Strategy affects the entire organization. You know that brand strategy isn’t a quick fix for a short term problem. It’s not a marketing issue or an HR issue or a logo issue; those are isolated challenges. You know Brand Strategy is a big picture effort, and it will have—must have—a ripple effect throughout the organization. We are bringing the Experience, Culture, Communications and Leadership together in a cohesive story and strategy.

You have a realistic perspective of your existing brand experience. You are ready to hear—you are expecting to hear—harsh criticism and face blunt truths. You have no illusions about the state of your business and the perspectives of all your stakeholders, or what the rest of the world is doing beyond the sanctity of your organization. You don’t make excuses or hold on to comfortable ‘sacred cows’ without a solid, strategic and big-picture defense of your decision.

You know that you can’t erase the past. You understand you will need to emerge from your past—you can’t ignore it or hide from it—to begin the next chapter of the organization. As much as we will leverage any momentum, we will have to actively overcome any past indiscretions. We won’t pretend the past “doesn’t count”, or that people should forget and move on. Authenticity (where actions meet accountability) is everything.

You know your budget and capacity for change. You’re not shopping for a Rolls-Royce strategy on a Yugo budget, and you’re prepared to invest. Your project could be $500 to $50,000,000—only you know which is more realistic for you—and the need to spend it wisely doesn’t make you uncomfortable. You’re not, however, just going to throw money at the issues and hope they fade away. You know you can’t just buy a good Brand Strategy; you’re investing in the people who are ready to make it real.

You’re thinking strategically. You’re not just bored with the status-quo; you know there is real opportunity to evolve and grow. You’re looking for a plan that reaches beyond a collection of short-term tactics and you see 5, 10 or 20 years ahead. Yeah—you’re thinking about what you organization will be 20 years from now because you’re acting on your vision and pushing forward.

You understand that Brand Strategy starts at the top. You know that everyone is looking to your leadership for guidance and direction, and your commitment—actions, not just words—sets the tone for the entire project. If you’re not comfortable with that, no one else is, either. Brand Strategy effort begins and ends with leadership agreeing that it’s important and valuable, and real change not only involves you, it starts with you.

Which leads us to the most important point:

You’re prepared to implement real change. You’re prepared to be accountable to those who rely on your leadership during uncertainty, and you’re ready to confront those who resist change. You know that real change is hard, probably messy, and sometimes scary. You’ll make tough, unpopular decisions and probably piss a few people off. You will look nay-sayers right in the eye and—without a shred of doubt—let them know you are making the right choice, and you don’t need them tagging along if they’re not onboard. You won’t let those moments derail the plan, because you know uncertainty is actually part of the plan.

And all of this excites you, because through all the chaos of change, you see the organization that will emerge as a leader, with a brand that is an asset and an inspiration to others. It’s this last one that is the most important.

Change is hard—really, really hard—and it often isn’t comfortable. But you’re ready for it.

This is how I know you’re ready to take your Brand Strategy to the next level. You’re thinking strategically; you’re thinking realistically; you’re thinking honestly; you’re thinking proactively; and most of all, you’re thinking like a leader.