Susan Davis

Okay, go ahead and admit it, a little shiver traveled through you as you read the title, “The Incomplete Leader”. Is a leader allowed to be incomplete? Think about it, many types of leaders are allowed: 

  • Flawed Leaders – allowed 
  • Lop-sided Leaders – allowed 
  • Unaware Leaders – allowed

Incomplete Leaders – not allowed! Do they even make incomplete leaders? 

It is a long-accepted tradition that leaders will be those who have risen in organizations by exhibiting exceptional competency, wielding great influencing skills, or perhaps by a gift of destiny. It is understood that they ride with the noble few who have completed their leadership course by fire and action. Is it possible to reframe successful leadership as a perpetual state of incompletion not as a placeholder state but as an active journey? Shall we venture even further to state that leaders can never claim completion

All of us have been educated in stories of flawed leaders. Their legacy is subject to review, judgment, and academic articles. Lop-sided leaders abound, they do not at all hide the fact they view a situation or policy from a singular fortressed view that has no tolerance for additional understanding or optional interpretation. Unaware leaders don’t know what they don’t know and blindly stumble into awkward conversations and experiences while somehow vacillating between success and abysmal failure – (think Pink Panther).

If we are accepting of the above noted characterizations of leaders; why do we resist the notion of an incomplete leader?

Maybe it’s because incompleteness is so jarring to our psyche. When something is incomplete, completers (who make up the majority of leaders or potential leaders) feel keen frustration and stress when robbed of the accomplishment of completion. Let’s examine this process by analyzing one of the completer’s ever-present tools – the to-do list. This simple practice is often how we measure our ability to complete tasks and help us provide evidence that we have earned the title of a skilled completer. When our list does not contain thick dark lines of ink through all items we ruminate on those unmarked tasks. Our list of accomplishments are incomplete… (groan). The undone tasks now must be credited as more complicated, more nuanced than when they were first placed on the list. No self-respecting completer would purposefully put items on the list that cannot be summarily taken care of. It is now the responsibility of the stressed completer to wade through barriers to complete these items. These incomplete to-dos have now morphed into wicked problems. How do they languish there on the list, boldly naked, resisting the imperative to wear their appropriate “dark line” uniform? The complexity of incomplete tasks now registers on the scale of a red alert in the completer’s emotional and thinking hubs! How can this be happening? Might a completer be doomed to relinquish their well-earned and guarded moniker? Well, take a deep breath, it turns out there may be many common barriers to completing a to-do list. (In full disclosure, this by no means constitutes a complete list of barriers) but fellow completers, let’s examine a few barriers and see how these may be a parallel journey of the to-be list that incomplete leaders may assign themselves. 

Potential Barriers to completing the to-do list:


Running low on patience is a true barrier to success in the completion of a standard to-do list. Let’s examine a common example:

One of the wicked items on the to-do list may involve contacting an organization that has set up a complex phone tree. This is a well-known art form in business. Companies given to offering customers the option for feedback, input, as well as assistance via phone are to be highly suspect as to their true intentions. When attempting this call, it is evident that the folks responsible for customer communication are in the well-stocked breakroom cackling about the unsuspecting customer who thinks it possible to navigate the phone tree in the morning and have their answers before dark. (I digress…) this task will require being on hold for painful hours of scratchy music while attempting to locate appropriate and competent assistance. This barrier has great potential to derail the most motivated completer.


Complexity adds dimensional layers to a task, the to-do list becomes much heavier with this barrier. Let’s look at an example: 

Another task on the to-do list requires investing in new travel routes, new relationships, or new resources which adds to the time and energy necessary to declare that this task is complete. While only listed as one task, the effort to complete actually represents at least two tasks. This is not quite as large of a barrier to the accomplished completer as patience, but it can result in relocating this item to the next day’s list and the next.  Card-carrying completers will recognize that this can be temporarily solved by re-categorizing this action as “completing by delay” which will not count toward the dopamine need but will provide a release from undue anxiety of seeing the item on the current list.

A Sequence

Simple tasks that take on a sequence of actions of their own are a true test to the skills of a true completer. Let’s look at this example:

The complexity of this barrier can prove capable of revoking a card-carrying completer’s membership. This item is dependent on someone else’s actions or decisions. Perhaps your mother has asked that you assist her in asking her neighbor not to park in front of her house. You have reached out to the once friendly neighbor who is now not returning your calls. To fail in completing this task carries many potential consequences. These consequences range wildly from ceasing to receive regular supplies of homemade cookies to greatly influencing your inheritance consideration.

So, let’s apply this same small list of barriers that impact our to-do list in analyzing a leader’s ability to complete their to-be list. Can barriers turn to stepping stones?

  • Have you been asked to step into a revised leadership zone? 
  • Do you have a new position that is filled with unknowns, change management opportunities, and needed relational skills? 
  • What is now on your leadership to-be list? 
  • Do you feel hope that you will become a completed leader and is that even a realistic consideration? 

Let’s revisit this short list of barriers through the eyes of our leadership journey.

Patience (previous barrier to steppingstone)

You find yourself in a new leadership position. Those who have selected you have expectations that you will perform as a completed leader from the moment you enter. What do you do now? You have first-hand knowledge that you have not fully completed all aspects of leadership competency. In addition, you may actually see the to-be list growing before your eyes. You can reallocate this time and energy, used in worrying, to begin creating trust, listening, honing in on your leadership development plan, being very patient with yourself and honoring/celebrating your incomplete (and growing) status. Patience is not the same as being on hold. It is a metered march to success.

All successful leaders are on the same journey. The chapters may read differently for each leader, but all need to continue to learn and practice new tools of leadership, solidify the importance of relationships, and offer the same generosity of spirit to their team.

Complexity (barrier to steppingstone)

There will be times when we need to travel outside our comfort zone and stretch our capacity/capability to connect. Connecting with shareholders, industry peers and community contacts will allow us to see from new perspectives and open alternatives to our current thoughts, processes and context of work. New connections forged in persons that are not similar to us in bias, culture, vision, or other categories of potential difference, will make us empathetic with ourselves, our teams and our organizations. We will also learn navigation techniques while practicing the advanced art of listening completely and well.

Sequence (barrier to stepping stone)

You will likely be placed in positions of motivation, moderation and facilitation, using more and more tools that help to influence your teams and organization. At times, it will seem that nothing is moving and that your best tries are not adding up to a win. This is the story of legendary leaders – the hero’s journey. You will reach deep to find more strength, more tools, more purpose, and your crystalized vision will place you in a position to discover again the strength of heart-led leadership and the place it deserves in the world even as the hero appears incomplete.

And just maybe we can leave this leader (who may be you) in the incomplete column indefinitely. The completer’s to-do list refills continually. An incomplete leader’s to-be list does the same. Necessity and vision can light our path of continual growth. Barriers can prove to be stepping stones, tasks can reveal the need for new goals and reassessment. The fear of being an incomplete leader should transfer to the leader who feels they have reached their apex without need of personal growth and change.

Travel on Incomplete Leader! Keep becoming MORE! We look to you to facilitate hope, inspiration, and wisdom for today and for the future.