Leading by Mistake

As a human, I am entirely imperfect—riddled with flaws, poor decision making, and repeated mistakes. I often show weakness and vulnerability at times that are most inconvenient. I am also a student leader. As a student leader, I am no exception to these fundamental aspects of humanity. The most impactful mistake I make is expecting that I will not make any mistakes at all. The most prevalent flaw of all is how I set the expectations for myself to reach perfection and to constantly exude confidence and wisdom.

I regularly see this misconception among my peers. It can and usually is, my prevailing downfall. Not only does this self-imposed expectation introduce an immense amount of stress to my multifaceted life, it has the ability to create distance between me and my teammates, friends, sisters, brothers, and peers. As I set the expectation for myself to consistently exhibit perfection (and often act as though I have reached it), I inevitably become less relatable. My teammates begin to put me on a pedestal above them. The additional stress to meet the expectation worsens my mental health and impacts my ability to execute. I know you can understand that most student leaders have an ample amount of stress. If we already have too much of it, why do we continue to introduce more? If we can help ourselves all while improving our ability to meet expectations, why don’t we?

I believe the source of the issue lies in the stigma around student leaders, and leaders in general. Society, our communities, and our peers expect our leaders to have answers, a high level of competency, and excellent performance. The misunderstanding lies in the difference between excellence and perfection. My peers expect excellence. I expect perfection. Excellence is not one individual having all the answers. It is one’s ability to find them. My peers expect competency, not flawlessness. Their expectations of excellence involve mistakes and learning from them. This is the key to resolving the epidemic of student leaders’ expecting perfection—making mistakes.

Mistakes are inevitable. If I expect to communicate, interact, and lead flawlessly, I will fail. More importantly, when I do, I will not learn from it. I will stay stagnant in my thoughts grasping at the root cause of my loss, not recognizing that the root is me. I expect to make mistakes, reflect on them, and chart a path of correction. When I do, I truly succeed.

How did I shift this expectation of myself? It seemed so simple but felt impossible due to the habits I have created. When setting goals and establishing expectations, for both myself and my teams, I pay close attention to the achievability of that goal. I ensure that our expectations can be met and that they are realistic. When we make mistakes, we take time to reflect upon the cause, effects, and improvements for the future. Lastly, I expect progress instead of perfection. As long as we are advancing in a positive direction as one cohesive team, we are succeeding.

So, lead by mistake and screw up sometimes. Be human and allow yourself to learn through your experiences. Live, to breathe, and to lead comfortably. Give yourself room to take steps in the wrong direction. Your peers and teammates expect it, and you most certainly deserve it. That is true excellence.

“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.”

Vince Lombardi


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