How do you define a strong leader?
All leadership–good and bad–starts from within. Overwhelming stress, unresolved issues, and low self-confidence (often displayed as arrogance) increase the likelihood of less-than-optimal leadership. Conversely, humility, courage, and trust (in yourself and others) are ingredients of stellar leadership.
In my coaching practice, I am seeing a growing impediment to effective leadership: Perfectionism.
Perfectionism in the broader sense refers to all-or-nothing thinking. “It needs to be done right (perfect), or else it’s a failure.” “If I mess this up, people will see that I’m in way over my head.” “Since I didn’t make it to the gym today, I might as well forget my diet too and order a pizza.”
Generally, the goal of a perfectionist is good. It’s the pursuit of excellence, the desire to do the best job, the drive to be successful. However, the true motivator for perfectionism is fear. “I need to make enough money in order for my family to be comfortable” is driven by the fear your family will live in poverty because you failed.
Here are the ways perfectionism impacts the top seven elements of effective leadership and what you can do to overcome it.
Innovation and imagination are vital to a good leader. A culture of perfectionism squashes creativity because it breeds an obsession to get everything “right”. Judgment prohibits innovative thinking–for a leader and his team. When employees hear criticisms for their ideas, they are less likely to try to come up with new ideas.
The better than perfect solution: Embrace the concept of brainstorming where every idea is good. Give your team and yourself the flexibility to envision and create new solutions, products, and policies to help your team, company, and you, the leader, advance forward.
While perfectionists use motivation (“good job”) to get people to do what they want, they also use fear, with overt or more passive judgment (“Oh, you decided to do the presentation that way? Huh…”). The team member feels judged rather than inspired.
The better than perfect solution: Strong leaders inspire their team. Inspiration is an inside job where employees engage in their work because they truly want to–not just for the money or recognition but because their job has meaning. Focus on passion (what you want and why) instead of fear (not wanting to mess up) for yourself and your team.
Perfectionists have a hard time delegating. They hold beliefs such as “It has to be done a certain way (a.k.a. ‘my way’) in order to be successful” or “I can’t trust them to do it right, so I might was well do it all myself.” The result? Overworking, missing out on the big picture, and micromanaging instead of leading.
The better than perfect solution: A good leader trusts her team. By using her team’s strengths, she cultivates an environment where her team is more engaged and ultimately more productive.
Perfectionists tend to view failure as catastrophic (“What if I give this speech and mess up?!”). Their fear of failure can cause them to give up when things are not going as planned. Similarly, unwanted feedback is interpreted as an attack on their character.
The better than perfect solution: Effective leaders do not personalize failure. Consider the “data” you receive when things do not go as planned and use that information to be an event better leader. Welcome feedback: It can help improve your skills and, at least, give you a better understanding of how the person views you.
While sometimes overtly arrogant, perfectionists’ self-confidence is conditional, dependent on achieving their goals. On a proverbial treadmill, they are constantly striving for the next big “thing” in order to feel good about themselves.
The better than perfect solution:Focus on principles, not just performance. Identify and apply your core values to optimize your leadership–and your happiness.
With their all-or-nothing thinking, perfectionists make a decision then stick with it, even if there is evidence that things should change. Alternatively, other perfectionists are indecisive, fearful that they will make the “wrong” decision.
The better than perfect solution: There is no one right answer. Do your homework, get the facts, then make your best choice. And, while staying confident in your choice, also look at the data to see how effective the decision is and if any modifications would be helpful.
Struggling with perfectionistic tendencies–always feeling the need for things (and people) to be perfect–can be stressful. And stress can lead to irritability, lack of empathy, difficulties concentrating, and a host of other problems for leaders. Perfectionists tend to think, “I have no time for stress management” so they avoid steps to help them better manage their tension.
The better than perfect solution: Take control of your stress; don’t let it control you. No time for daily 90-minute yoga classes? It doesn’t have to be “perfect.” Try five minutes of mediation, a 10-minute walk, or taking some time to have fun. Professional athletes know it is important to train hard and rest hard so they can be more resilient and effective. Good leaders do the same.
—Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D. coaches executives on how to get out of their own way. Her newest book Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love is available now.