Why Imperfect Leaders May Retain More Employees

Emerging from a recession is a relief — unless your over-worked and underpaid employees take to greener pastures. What is the one true thing that leaders fearing employee defection can do to keep them? Be honest...

I just finished scanning the thoughtful blogpost by Martin Lindstrom, Why Brands Should Strive for Imperfection.  You’ll like his central message: brands that consistently show a perfect face to their audience in their advertising and promotion (from unblemished fruit to unblemished babies) mistake perfection for connection.  Turns out, however, that we humans are attracted to flaws. Why?  Because we value what’s real.  And in our house, neither fruits nor babies are free of those small irregularities that make each individual unique and interesting.

Homemade, not mass-produced. Special.

As wary confidence grows in the economic recovery, anxiety is starting to bubble around workforce loyalty and retention.  The concern on the part of many line managers and HR professionals is this:  that the stresses and strains of the last two years will drive their workers, even the most valued ones, to look for new jobs outside the firm as soon as they get the chance.  Part of their motivation may be money. Part of their motivation may be a fresh start.  Part of their motivation may be simple revenge.  How long can you "do more with less" before feeling taken advantage of, no matter what the rationale?

Whatever the mix, these employees are at risk of leaving just as the company most needs their experience in the products, services, markets and business processes required to fuel new growth. If those same workers believe that leadership handled lay-offs and other tough decisions insensitively during the downturn, the danger of employee flight is even greater.  

How can you as a leader bring them back into the fold?  Be honest with yourself. Then be honest with them.  Did you do a good job of leading during the tough times?  Did you manage to balance the human with the business?  Or, like so many quite flawed and well-intentioned leaders under great pressure, did you retreat to the bottom line without due consideration for what that meant for the people?

Think about it. Communicate what you think. Admit your mistakes. Connect your imperfect self into the lives of those around you.

Thank you, Martin Lindstrom.

(Please check out my imperfect new website.  Would appreciate any comments on how to render it less flawed.  And please email me at katejsweetman@gmail.com if you would like to connect with my own imperfect self).

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  • pamelahawley

    Thank you, Kate, for this insightful piece about what makes a good leader, and what encourages employee loyalty. I think another key is balance--for everyone on the team, from CEO to employees to interns. It’s important to have outside lives and interests. First, as CEO, I have to recognize these for myself. In my life, family is #1 for me. Secondly, I adore performing Improv. I make time for these things in my life--a balance between work and other priorities.

    The beauty of this balance is that I come back energized to UniversalGiving. My mind has had “time off’ and is thrilled to reengage with our efforts to serve. We know UniversalGiving can’t be everything for everyone (even me). And so I love to hear about my team's other interests–-how can we help further them? One person on our team wants to be a writer. Another wants to go into aerospace. If I know this, perhaps someday I can help them. I can watch out for a person or introduction that might be helpful. Or even in a small way, I can find a helpful article in my daily journey of reading.

    My team knows about my interests and priorities that exist outside UniversalGiving. Just as showing imperfection makes a leader human and helps connect a team, the same is true for knowing about a leader's outside interests. Knowing and honoring my team's interests and goals also builds that connection, and makes them feel valued and accepted as people, rather than just as workers.

    We believe in long-term, trusted relationships at UniversalGiving. We build these through respect, appreciation and an acknowledgment and acceptance of the whole person--goals, interests, imperfections and all!

    Pamela Hawley
    Founder and CEO


    Living and Giving blog

  • Kate Sweetman

    Dear Vinod, Thank you for your thoughtful note and certainly no offense taken! Indeed, what the statistic itself shows is correlation, not causation, and I think you are quite right that such organizations are probably doing a LOT more things right than simply opening the ranks to women. They are doubtless also rewarding and elevating different sorts of men as well. So, I completely agree with you. That said, there is also good evidence that there are some general differences in the ways that men by and large and women by and large take in, value and process information. Please see some of my earlier blogs on the gender brain – December 1, 2, 3 and 10, 2008 -- and see what you think!

  • David McCleary

    Kate - your comments and thinking resonates well with the philosophies and observations in my recently released book, Leaving Prisons: Release Your Trapped Value - I just posted a link to this on my blog www.David-McCleary.com And I just realized that you published your book with Dave U.- he gave a wonderful blurb for the back cover of my book.

    Authenticity and humility will always comprise the bedrock essence of leadership - without it, tyranny and elitism ensues. Elitist leaders repel followers, authenticity attracts. If human equality is holy, elitism is evil.

    Your perspective is needed - I wish you all the best!
    David McCleary

  • Vinod Dumblekar


    The Imperfect Leaders article was interesting.

    In your article of 8 Jan 2010 in ET, Mumbai, India, you said that: Consider the following research: Companies that have at least 25% women on their senior leadership team make 35% higher ROE (Catalyst); are consistently in the top quartile of their peer group (McKinsey); return substantially higher innovation and effectiveness (London Business School).

    The statement seems to imply that more women in a firm's senior team are the reason for higher returns. On the contrary, it is the reverse conclusion that is probably true.

    What is possible - and may have actually happened - is this. Firms with higher returns are probably more enlightened, and have less prejudice (toward women and others). Therefore, they recruit for potential, irrespective of gender (one of many traits).

    No offense, please.

  • Chris Reich


    Your comment hits it squarely on the head. "Part of their motivation may be simple revenge. How long can you “do more with less” before feeling taken advantage of, no matter what the rationale?"

    I'm not sure it's exactly revenge but the reasoning is right on the money. People DO feel used as business picks up but workload does not lessen. I know of several people planning to jump ship because they feel used by companies that have shown remarkable recovery.

    It's management's failure to explain the "catch up" period that is harming morale. Employees see recovery but not the hole left by recession to be back-filled.

    Chris Reich

  • Dan Rockwell

    Hey Kate,

    I'm with you. Frailty can draw people to us rather than drive them away.
    Check out todays blog "Waffles." Our empty spaces have positive potential.

    I'm enjoying your perspective on things,

    Leadership Freak
    Dan Rockwell