Wabi-Sabi: People are Imperfect. Love Them Anyway.

Everybody’s Crazy

I came across the idea of Wabi-Sabi recently, about the same time as I was helping a founder of a startup who had just had one of his most reliable reports suddenly go off the rails. When I first started managing projects, the fact that people would do things that made no real sense (at apparently random times) was a big surprise.

Here’s a minor example: I went to check on a project that looked like it might be slipping. We’d acquired the team and product a little while ago, and things had been pretty positive: good product, good, if slightly eccentric, people. At the team meeting, it was completely clear that the guy leading the project was drunk off his head. At five in the afternoon a couple of days before a ship date. Interesting problem: he had authority. I had responsibility for making sure the thing shipped. He had a ton of vested shares. He was drunk.

Here’s another one: I was leading a project where the founder had the difficult habit of waiting until I left the building and then wandering around talking to the engineers about things they should do that were really cool but not in the project plan. Then he would deny it. Then he would pile on at Board Meetings about why the project wasn’t on schedule. Eventually we had a showdown and he was barred from the building until the project shipped (on time, I should add, and the company eventually went public).

I was busy making him wealthy. He was busy trying to stop me. Very strange.

People are Imperfect

We think of the tech world as rational, run by business rules and technical realities. We think of people as more or less predictable: motivated by some obvious things — challenging work, a good environment, positive feedback.

The mistake we make is that we can never fully know somebody, particularly at work. People are chemical, emotional, driven by deep currents that don’t show up in the professional world until the cracks are too great to hide.

As I understand it (and I am only really at the Wikipedia level of understanding), Wabi-Sabi is an acceptance of the flaws that are an integral part of nature. I quote from Wikipedia:

“The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”.

As leaders, we will be confronted with the imperfection, impermanence and incompleteness of the people for whom we are responsible. In fact, that’s almost a definition of the job. It’s why it’s hard. If people were predictable, fully reliable, perfect, leadership would just be a matter of ticking of boxes on to-do lists.

The trick is to embrace the flaws. It’s too easy to write people off who suddenly show their cracks — to demote them, push them aside, figure out how to work around them. If you do that too often, you’ll find yourself alone, or moving jobs frequently enough that people will notice.

The trick is to find beauty in the imperfections that make us human. To see the flaws as part of the whole that you are responsible for. If you can do that, then you can start to help, to serve, to really lead.

(I coach leaders in the tech industry in SF and further afield. Interested in finding out more? Drop me a line)