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The myth of the iconic leader

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY We talk a lot about leadership here and, well, just about everywhere, these days. The problem is we often paint a picture that's too perfect -- an ideal, a composite leader, if you will. And while you and I both know that nobody's perfect, we can't help but wonder how we measure up. It's human nature.

You see, our culture tends to idolize and demonize leaders. And therein lies the rub. We hoist them up on impossibly high pedestals and knock them down when they're inevitably proven to be imperfect.

When leaders accomplish great things, we seek to emulate them without realizing how much we're not seeing under the hood of public perception. And we certainly don't consider just how much of their success is situational. And when they screw up we judge them harshly, as we should. But we also act as if we could never be so stupid or make such poor decisions, which is almost certainly untrue.

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Don't get me wrong. I've known and worked with some pretty accomplished executives and leaders over the years.

Bill Davidow, an Intel (INTC) marketing executive who became a powerful venture capitalist and Silicon Valley icon, was chairman of the last company I worked for. He interviewed me for the job, and we met a few times after that since I was the marketing veep and he knows a little about that sort of thing. Brilliant guy.

The late Jack Kemp, a former congressman from New York, sat on my company's board of directors for a few years back in the 1990s. He was a powerful advocate for small business and fought for tax reform and simplification long before it was a popular subject. Jack was wildly charismatic and inspiring. Not a bad quarterback, either.

I've also worked with dozens of others who either were or went on to become famous, successful executives and leaders. But here's the thing. Not a single one of them was without significant flaws. I don't typically point them out here because, well, that's just not how I do things.

Instead, I point out my own flaws -- something I'm comfortable doing -- and trust that, although I may not have been quite as successful as those famous people, you'll make the connection. Indeed, that's why I infuse a relatively heavy dose of humility into my blog posts, in the hope that it rubs off. Ironically, I'm better at writing those truths than I am at admitting them face-to-face. Go figure.

Speaking of which, here's some humble advice for all you up-and-coming leaders and hotshot executives.

Success is more situational than you realize. No, it's not often just luck, but everyone and everything is subject to the laws of probability.

There's no perfect anything. How often do we use or hear the phrase, "They're the perfect couple?" Well, the other day, a friend said to me, "You never know what really goes on inside somebody else's marriage." The same is true of companies and leaders. No kidding.

All behaviors contain their opposites. Our most heralded strengths are just one side of the coin away from our most vulnerable weaknesses. Every confident executive is at times overconfident. And powerful leaders can have too much power. That's why even brilliant people often make remarkably dumb decisions.

After all, we're flesh and blood. Don't hoist yourself or anyone else up on a pedestal higher than you or they can reasonably reach. Even if you do somehow manage to get up there, the fall can kill you. Robert Browning said, "A man's reach should exceed his grasp." I agree, as long as you never, ever forget that we're all just flesh and blood.

Imagine great leaders in compromising situations. I'm not kidding. Imagine them on an operating table, crying in grief or pain, giving someone who's just trying to do her job a hard time, or as a child throwing a tempter tantrum. And if you ever start to think of yourself as a great anything, imagine if others could see you at your worst. That should provide some balance and humility. Try it; it really works.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Joi

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