THE PERFECTION MYTH
7 August 2016
Several years ago, at a school in the UK, the principal gave a beautiful assembly talk. Having just returned from a holiday, she showed pictures of various pebbles she had taken on a beach and told the pupils that these had reminded her of them. Naturally there were some giggles in the audience at first, but these quickly subsided as she explained the imagery. These pebbles, all of them beautiful, some polished, others rough, some clean, others dirty, some round, others edgy, in different shades of colour, in a variety of shapes, were all individual: no two pebbles were the same, just as no two snowflakes are ever the same. There was no such thing as ‘the perfect pebble’, hence they served as the ideal metaphor for the imperfection of human beings and yet the acceptance that each human being, with all their flaws, quirks and deficiencies, is beautiful in themselves.
This is an important message to impart, especially in a girls’ school. Girls can find it very hard to accept imperfection in themselves, far more so than boys, and, with all the associated risks to their personal wellbeing and happiness, they can be very unforgiving of their perceived weaknesses (physical, emotional, social or academic). Where boys often shrug off a detention or even a ‘rustication’ (the rather scarily medieval term used in one of my previous schools for ‘suspension’), girls often find it much harder to accept a sanction and the perceived stigma of failure attached to it. It is therefore important to remind them that it is okay to be imperfect. It is okay to make mistakes, as long as one admits them, learns from them and, wherever possible, makes amends for them. People who accept their own imperfection are more likely to forgive it in others.
And as in other areas, it is important for us adults to model this type of behaviour, to accept our imperfection and to admit our mistakes. There were times when adults, and especially leaders, felt they had to be seen as invincible or infallible and when vulnerability or imperfection (at least an open acceptance of it or an admission of one’s own fallibility) would have been seen as weakness. Thankfully, modern leadership concepts have addressed this, and concepts of servant leadership, of the vulnerable leader, of the humble leader, have replaced this outdated model of the perfect person at the top who is always right. This is a healthy shift, and one must not mistake humility for weakness nor for a lack of confidence. It takes courage to admit one’s wrongs, and even more courage to try and put them right.
Admitting our own fallibility adds credibility to the message we are trying to impart to our pupils, and where we do not only acknowledge our mistakes but also make amends for them, we send a powerful message. Just as we encourage our girls and boys to accept their own imperfection and that of others, as adults in the working world we should aim at creating a humane and compassionate working climate where people feel safe to own up to their imperfection without fear that such acknowledgement may be held against them as an admission of failure or poor performance. We are all human, and as such we are imperfect. Where leaders go first in acknowledging this, others will follow suit.
Each of us is a precious pebble, some more polished than others, and, aware of our own imperfection, we need to forgive the weaknesses and mistakes of others, celebrate their strengths and our own, and appreciate each other’s beauty, imperfection and individuality.