James Robilotta has held a variety of roles in his life from student leader to student affairs professional to stand-up comedian, public speaker, and personal life coach. Those experiences have given him the opportunity to lead, be led, and help develop new leaders, which ultimately led him to a powerful realization: “I see a problem in today’s developing leaders-they think they need to be someone they are not to get what they want. This mentality negatively impacts the way they communicate and build relationships with their peers, coworkers, and supervisors.”
James can see this fault because it’s one he’s admittedly had himself; for example, in high school he took on multiple leadership roles not because he was committed to being a leader but because of how it would look on his resume, and in college, he tried to dress well to fit in with popular ideas of what it meant to be “fresh.” Fortunately, James became aware of these faults and changed, as well as learned to laugh at himself and use these stories as examples to illustrate the importance of his message on leadership. Now in his new book, Leading Imperfectly: The Value of Being Authentic for Leaders, Professionals, and Humans Beings, James argues that the mistakes we make and our imperfections are where we learn our most valuable lessons; those character flaws are what eventually mold us into being successful leaders who are unafraid of sharing our imperfections.
The idea of imperfect leadership resonates for James because it gives us a human place to connect with others. He states that allowing ourselves to be imperfect “increases open and honest communication between all levels of the hierarchy because you will then be leading from a place of support and understanding instead of one of fear and pressure.”
Another way so many leaders pretend to be something other than they are is in the stories they tell. James is tired of hearing the same people held up as examples of greatness: “If I hear one more time that Michael Jordan got cut from his high school basketball team or that Wayne Gretzky said, ‘You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take,’ I may boil over.” He doesn’t deny that Susan B. Anthony, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and a string of other famous people accomplished wonderful things, but he believes we can’t reach the people we’re leading by giving them such examples to model themselves after. “Attempting to inspire a student, mentee, peer, family member, etc., by suggesting he or she be more like one of the individuals above makes as much sense as trying to motivate a small boy who wants to be a lumberjack with Paul Bunyan’s story. It’s an amazing tale, but it’s unrealistic. Instead, introduce that boy to the local logger who is climbing the ladder of success.” After all, “Today’s students will become us before they become the world’s future heroes.” Therefore, James says we need to tell our own stories and show we are human-and that’s where we’ll get the people we lead to connect with us.
In short, none of us is perfect, and when we pretend to be, people quit listening to us. Instead, we need to focus on trying to connect with others. Leading Imperfectly is full of examples for how to make those connections. The book is divided into a series of short, often humorous, and always insightful essays filled with real-life stories from James’ own life. Other topics discuss the importance of learning how to love others, how to prevent over-committing because you can’t be everything to everyone, realizing you don’t have all the answers, and some practical advice about the importance of valuing the time we have and giving that time to the most important people in our lives. James also challenges us to look at the lies we tell ourselves that hold us back in life, and to learn how to listen to others so they will listen to us. (I imagine he knows a lot about the importance of getting people to listen to you based on his improv experience.)
James’ humor provides comic relief in the middle of some of the more serious stories, but the humor always makes his examples hit home and keeps his stories memorable. I also appreciate that while he speaks as someone who has had success in life, his leadership background is not that of the typical leader who writes leadership books-he’s not a former company CEO or a famous athlete-and that makes his points stand out all the more. As James knows, we all are leaders in some way in our lives. We all are examples to someone and we often influence others in many ways. We may end up being a leader to the stranger we meet in the coffee shop or to a small child and never even know the power of our influence. As James states, “We all have the capacity to educate. I challenge you to take action. Own who you are so you can be real to others.”
After reading Leading Imperfectly, I feel less inclined to hide my faults and instead tell stories of how the mistakes I’ve made led me to where I am today. James encourages us to lead from our faults, and it’s advice we can all hear with relief and apply with better results for ourselves and everyone who might be watching or listening to us. Check out Leading Imperfectly. Between the chuckles, there’s quite a bit of wisdom that will stick with you long after you turn the last page.
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