More than two months after I wrote this blog, I found one of my students referring to the 'good enough leader' in one of his essays, citing one of my own earlier works. To my surprise, I discovered that Larry Hirschhorn and I had written about the good enough leader (but without reference to Winnicott) in my 1999 book Organizations in Depth (p. 144-5). The tricks our memory plays! None of this is to detract from Aaron's fine book.
"And now that you don't have to be perfect, you can be good. Is that it?" - John Steinbeck
In contrast to the ‘ethics of justice’ which has long dominated the thinking of moral philosophers, ethics of care theorists argue for a different system of morality, one that does not rely on claims of universality, absolute judgements of right and wrong, and perfect virtues. Instead, an ethics of care is a practical morality that grows out of a recognition that all people are embedded in different webs of social relations. We are all dependent on others for our survival and well-being and we are capable of supporting others in their moments of need and helplessness.
It seems to me that, whatever else followers expect of their leaders, a fundamental expectation from which many others follow is that leaders should care. A leader who is perceived not to care for his/her followers (and is therefore regarded as caring only for him/herself) automatically loses any claim to moral leadership, not matter what competences and achievements he/she may be able to display.
Developing a theory of the followers' moral expectations of their leaders calls for a recognition that many leaders occupy a position in their followers' unconscious minds that was occupied in earlier life by those archetypal figures, the primal father and the primal mother. To the eyes of the helpless child, these figures are truly immense in their size, knowledge and power, features later projected onto some leaders.
Being cared for and protected by these great is fundamental to most children's experience and again it forms the kernel of later expectations of leaders. It was this realization to prompted to recall Winnicott's theory of the "good enough mother" - this is the mother who does not seek perfection in her relation with her child, but seeks to provide a safe environment, not too controlling, not too distant, in which the child can discover his/her own identity.
And this prompted me to think of a 'good enough' leader, in contrast to all the supposed super-heroes and super-villains who constantly attract the attention of media, pundits and many theorists. Enter Google. Within a minute I discovered that my old friend Aaron Nurick has just published a book entitled The Good Enough Manager - The manking of a Gem (Routledge, 2012) in which he explores this very theme. Aaron has also published a thought provoking blog, "Good Enough Can Be Great".
Nurick's argument is that letting go of the ideal of perfection is a crucial step towards mature leadership and mature followership. Perfection is a childhood delusion which, more often than not, resurfaces in quite destructive shapes to sabotage what is 'good' - hence the title of this blog. Perfection, as Aristotle realized, is for mathematics and the outer spheres of the universe. The closer we get to the earth (Aristole's meteorology), the messier things become ('complex' is today's favourite expression). Such things call neither for science nor for abstract wisdom but for phronesis (or practical wisdom).
And this brings us to the good enough mother and the good enough leader or manager - the individual who recognizes that perfection is a wish-fulfilling illusion. Destructive perfectionism often becomes a ruthless mechanism of control (think of micromanagement, think of all those benchmarks, all those 'best practices', all those cutting edges and world leaders), of disabling criticism (all those parental voices saying "You disappointed me again") and of defensiveness ("Since we cannot be perfect what is the use of trying?")
Three cheers then for Nurick. Since not everyone one can be No 1 and since No 1 itself is often a chimera let's celebrate what is good enough good enough. Good enough can be great. And let's celebrate good enough leaders and managers who care and get things done rather than pitch our hopes in messiahs and miracle-workers.