Leadership Should be Messy

Leaders have historically been portrayed as polished to perfection. As a result, we sometimes unfairly expect leaders to be superhuman. We ridicule and shame when they make mistakes and reel in disappointment when they don’t live up to our ideals. 

That concept of leadership is dying. People are increasingly recognizing leadership as complex, emergent, and shared regardless of formal position. In other words, messy. 

Some people resist messiness. To them, such disorder reflects a lack of discipline, healthy habits, and quantifiable results. It goes against how we have been programmed for decades. Others, like me, are open to messiness because it creates possibilities for challenge, engagement, and transformational results. 

So unstraighten the surely minimal piles on your desk, misspeak and offend someone, let someone make a mistake, and try something that seems daunting if not impossible. Heck, throw up a bunch of papers in the air. Give up the seductive illusion of control. Let go and see what happens. 

Changing the Culture of Leadership

A striking headline recently caught my eye: 

Masculine Traits are Still Linked to Leadership 

The researchers created a list of stereotypically masculine and feminine words associated with leadership – both those with positive and negative connotations (though I don’t necessarily agree with the binary assignment to categories, for example, ambitious to masculine). They found that traits associated with women were seen as luxurious – valuable, but superfluous, to leadership. Nice, but not necessary. 

Steering our priorities toward the austere, I would argue, is a masculine trait – if one must choose at all (perhaps forced choice can also be thought of as a masculine approach). And one that makes our world more bleak, divided, unnecessary tumultuous, short sighted, and wasteful. So making this choice to veer toward the masculine, regardless of our gender, reinforces these stereotypes and creates the type of world described above. Artful integration of masculine and feminine (and uncategorizable) approaches to leadership, I think, is a more interesting and helpful way to realize the world we dream of living in.