Leaders have a great deal riding on them. Their employees, bosses, customers, and organizations need and expect a lot. For many, this breeds an intense experience of pressure. A belief that there’s no room for error. That everything’s got to be perfect. That they must get it right. For many, this transforms healthy persistence into the unhealthy expression of perfectionism.
Perfectionism is a frequently-noted derailer across industries and leadership levels. And it’s damaging to all involved. The perfectionistic leader can experience stress, isolation, procrastination, and risk-avoidance that hurts himself and the business. Those who report to perfectionistic leaders suffer as well in terms of morale, motivation, and job satisfaction.
And here’s the tough part. Most perfectionistic leaders don’t recognize this about themselves. They describe themselves with words like ‘quality,’ ‘standards,’ and ‘excellence.’ But taken to an extreme, this starts to look a lot like perfectionism.
How are You Doing?
What about you? This list describing the two sides of the perfectionism/persistence coin may help you to conduct an honest evaluation of yourself.
The perfectionistic leader is driven by an unrelenting need for things to meet a frequently unrealistic standard. This need drives his own behavior and treatment of others. To surpass his extraordinarily high bar, he tends to give orders, issue demands, and dictate not just the ‘what’ but also the ‘how’ of a task. Because failure is not an option, he may avoid risks. And his attention gravitates toward any gap (no matter how small) between what is and how he needs it to be.
The persistent leader, on the other hand, can set and pursue high standards without the emotional toll on himself or others. He is willing to experiment and to take intelligent chances and risks. Mistakes and set-backs are perceived as opportunities to learn. He engages others and demonstrates trust in their capacity… and understands that growth can be messy and is rarely perfect.
Are you consistently disappointed with the performance of those around you?
Do you offer criticism more than praise?
Are others afraid to share mistakes or problems with you?
If so, you may be struggling with perfectionism.
Bridging the Distance
The good news is that perfectionism is not a life sentence. The perfectionistic leader who is committed to making a change can take steps in the direction of healthier persistent leadership. And he will likely find that the shortest distance between perfectionism and persistence is presence.
Presence refers to that conscious, intentional quality of awareness – a cognizance of one’s thoughts, reactions, and feelings. Perfectionism generally comes from a lack of presence as a leader responds unconsciously to memories, experiences, fears, or anticipations. Comments from a critical teacher or parent may play in the back of his mind, triggering reactions and motivating unproductive behavior.
With presence, leaders can acknowledge those triggers and motivators – a pre-requisite for diligently working to avoid reacting to them. Presence allows leaders to take into consideration the current situation, responding to it alone. They’re able to put things into perspective, suspend irrational fear, and work with others in a constructive fashion.
The most successful leaders – the ones who demonstrate persistence rather than perfectionism – have learned to cultivate and conjure up presence in their lives. Some practice mindfulness techniques like mediation and centering. Others engage in visualization and journaling. Yoga, walking, and even the simple act of conscious breathing can support leaders in bringing presence to their work and to their interactions.
Let’s face it: perfection is an unattainable standard and unconsciously seeking it leads to burn out – for leaders and their employees alike. Persistence, on the other hand, is sustainable, allowing others to develop and grow while delivering long-term business results. Presence can be the vehicle for leaders interested in moving from one to the other.
What about you? Is your leadership style characterized more by perfectionism or persistence? How is perfectionism hurting your business? What techniques do you use to bring more presence into your life?