Twenty years ago I managed to worm my way into the dusty, cluttered woodshop of Rude Osolnick on Poverty Ridge in Berea, Kentucky. Rude was an artist in wood, renowned around the world for his graceful and delicate woodturnings.
On the lathe, he had mounted a burl of maple. Scarred and pockmarked, its appearance would suggest it was better tossed into the scrap heap.
I watched as he patiently shaved away layer after layer of wood, keenly aware that the weaknesses in the wood could disintegrate the whole piece at any turn of that lathe.
And then it was done. The worm holes, the bark scars, the sap streaks – rather than being something to correct or avoid – gave the piece its beauty and uniqueness. I almost could not have imagined the bowl without them.
Most of us hate our weaknesses. We would prefer to cut around them, excise them, disguise them, imagine we can somehow transform them into strengths. It is as if these weaknesses are defects, and that by not remediating them, we are something less than whole.
True, there are some weaknesses that simply are a bad fit: In business, we should worry about a CFO prone to imagination, an operations executive who lacks discipline, a CMO bridled by caution, or a CEO beset by mood swings. We do have to function in our function, after all.
However, I see an awful lot of energy and self-confidence exhausted trying to overcome weaknesses in what turns out to be an exercise in self-rejection. We fall into the trap of thinking we can be (or must be) perfect – or near so – to be admired, to be respected, to lead. What we lose in this endeavor is often the very thing that draws people (especially their hearts) to us — that sense of vulnerability and authenticity. When we are approachable, when who we are seems not so distant from how others see themselves, we connect at a much deeper level. Great leaders understand that, and embrace their weaknesses as well as their strengths.
Accepting our weaknesses is not acquiescing to our worst parts. For most, it is treating our frailties with some humor, grace and humility, knowing our imperfections are what keeps us in touch with all those other imperfect people out there.
Back when I was doing more woodworking, I bought a plank of quilted cherry — beautiful, except it had a large scar on one edge where the bark had rotted. I was going to trim it off to make the piece “perfect” for the top of a table I was making, but my wife convinced me to leave the scar on there. Everyone who sees the table today rarely speaks of the beauty of the “perfect” quilted grain, instead admiring (and often tracing their hands across) the “fault” in the wood.
Something about imperfection that connects us all.