Beyond Perfectionism

21 July 2017

This article was first published in the Queenwood weekly newsletter on 21 July 2017

On Wednesday I had the pleasure of attending the induction of the Junior School Semester 2 prefects and presenting them with their badges. We also begin in earnest this week the process of selecting our Senior School prefects for 2018. As these are prominent student leadership roles, we took the opportunity to communicate certain key messages: their responsibilities, the characteristics of servant leadership, the maturity they will need to be successful, and the many opportunities before them. We stress that prefect roles are not a reward for services rendered, they are a job for which we are identifying suitable candidates.
We also consistently emphasise to all the girls (not just the ones ‘chosen’) that girls become leaders not by being presented with badges but inspiring others to get involved. It is therefore up to them to identify a change they would like to make, or a project they would like to take on, and to do their best to make it happen. We are there to help them (whether or not they have an official appointment) and the proof of leadership will be in getting the job done. We expect and trust in our girls to show us what they can do; it is not a question of being anointed by the adults in their lives.

These messages are fairly predictable but they are worth repeating every time to make sure that they sink in.

There is, however, another and more subtle lesson which is learnt through selection processes. In Australia, legal questions are ultimately decided by appeal to the High Court and lawyers have a saying: ‘It’s not final because it’s right. It’s right because it’s final.’ In other words, in some circumstances the only way you can get a final decision is by accepting that it may not be perfect. This is hard to accept if you are not on the winning side, but it is a fact of life.

Understanding this does, however, relieve the girls of a significant burden. If a girl believes that the process is designed to pick the person whom we value most, whom we have judged most worthy, whom we have deemed (in our omniscience) to be the perfect candidate, then the implications of not being chosen are devastating. Either we have delivered a damning judgment of her worth; or we have presided over a defective system which denies her a yearned-for opportunity. On this basis, it’s no wonder that selection of student leaders is often fraught.

On the other hand, a girl might understand that the prefects are chosen through an agreed and transparent process and that in applying for leadership she commits to accepting the result. She might have a mature recognition that no human process can ever guarantee perfect outcomes, and it certainly can’t mine the depths of the human soul and determine who is ultimately worthy. So if she is not chosen, it might be because there is a better candidate or it might be because the process was not one which was going to lead to her selection. That doesn’t mean that the successful applicants don’t deserve it; but nor does it mean that she has been judged unworthy. In other words, the process can be a reasonable and fair one whether or not we entirely agree with the outcome.

Young people have a strong sense of justice so persuading them that not everything in life can be categorised as right or wrong is a hard task – and one that in a perfect world we would not have to undertake. But going out into the world expecting it to conform to one’s own view of right and wrong is asking for trouble. Understanding that reasonable minds may differ, or that we can’t guarantee perfect outcomes every time, also requires us to broaden our perspective on the world, and have the maturity to recognise that it doesn’t revolve around us. These are necessary, but not easy, lessons on the path to adulthood.

Ms Elizabeth Stone