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Striving for Excellence: Navigating the Highs and Lows of Perfectionist Leadership
Mature Perfectionists are methodical, disciplined, and ethical leaders. Perfectionist leadership can be highly effective as long as it chooses excellence over perfection. When they derail, Perfectionist leaders become impossible to please and are ready to abuse those under their leadership for what they perceive as the interests of their organizations. Leadership coaching aims to instill more maturity in Perfectionists to allow them to play to their strengths.
“Success is the result of perfection, hard work, learning from failure, loyalty, and persistence” – Colin Powell.
Some leaders may perceive perfectionism as a virtue. Often, such leaders conflate it with excellence, which is, indeed, a virtue in the truest sense of the word. Perfectionist leadership’s case is more nuanced. As long as it comes through as excellence, it represents value. Its negative aspects define it as insecurity, however.
Pure perfectionism is insecurity rather than an asset.
Perfectionist leadership wants and accepts nothing but perfection from leaders and those around them. Perfectionist leaders set out to achieve nothing less than to perfect everything in their environment. True perfectionists don’t settle for anything less than true perfection.
To achieve their goals, Perfectionists are highly critical of everyone, themselves included. Those who embark on a quest to achieve perfection, however, want nothing less than to achieve the impossible. In a practical and even philosophical sense, perfection may not exist.
“There is no perfection, only beautiful versions of brokenness.” – Shannon L. Alder.
Those chasing perfection condemn themselves to inevitable frustration with the world and everything in it. When they derail as leaders, Perfectionists become angrier with their environment, hiding their swelling rage behind a façade of noble ideals and worthy leadership goals.
Their strong convictions and boundless energy can make Perfectionist leaders highly inspirational. At the same time, however, their unachievable goals can cause some of their reports and peers to flee their sphere of influence.
Only intelligent leadership maturity can tame perfectionism. Mature Perfectionists can become noble leaders who understand the deceitful nature of perfection.
Characteristics of Mature Perfectionists
Mature Perfectionists are reliable leaders who predicate their positions on strong ethical principles.
People trust such leaders as they know they’re unwilling to cut corners and turn in suboptimal work. With their deep sense of right and wrong, mature perfectionists are also impartial, fair leaders who make objective decisions and know how to control their emotions.
Mature Perfectionists know better than to take perfection literally. They understand that in the context of business leadership, supplanting literal perfection with high-quality standards makes perfect sense and is desirable. In line with that reasoning, they will settle for 80%-95% accomplishment rates of their goals instead of chasing the elusive 100%.
Mature perfectionists do not abide by this scale.
They recognize that people are flawed and that they can provide valuable contributions despite their shortcomings. Mature Perfectionists cling to their humanity and treat others as humans instead of pawns in their perfection-focused games.
The Central Problem of Perfectionists
Unless fully mature, Perfectionists are never at peace with their environment. As those around them realize it’s impossible to please them and abandon their cause, they may not care, seeing others as expendable tools they use to reach their unattainable goals. In some cases, frustrated Perfectionists may lash out to punish those they see as deserters.
The problem with the dehumanization of others is that predominant Perfectionists extend the practice to themselves. Perfectionists focus so much on weaknesses that they look past strengths. They may even miss their own strengths as their leadership derails.
This conflict-ridden relationship with their environments can drive some Perfectionists to brutally abuse others, ignoring their suffering or jotting it down as the inevitable cost of perfection.
Are any of these perfectionist traits familiar to you? Do you suspect that you may be a Perfectionist leader?
Recognizing the Perfectionist Trait in You
Perfectionists display a set of traits that leadership coaching professionals will likely find unmistakable and obvious. You may be a Perfectionist if:
- You find it easy to correctly evaluate problems and set priorities.
- You know that it’s realistic and satisfactory to achieve 80-95% of your goals.
- You are disciplined and ethical and expect the same from others.
- Others recognize you as fair, impartial, and reliable.
- The goals you set are realistic and inspiring.
- You tolerate shortcomings from others and yourself.
- You know that a good effort is more valuable than a perfect outcome.
If you recognize yourself in these leadership traits, you are lucky. You are probably a mature and highly functional Perfectionist with great leadership skills.
Many Perfectionist leaders fail to make this category. When they derail, they:
- Begin to fear making mistakes
- Become impersonal and lose flexibility
- Criticize others, trying to perfect them
- Demand perfection from themselves and others, becoming anxious and remorseful when they fail to deliver.
Perfectionists who derail completely:
- Feel that they are always right and everyone should acknowledge their superiority
- Become impossible to please
- Take sadistic pleasure in proving others wrong
- Disregard others as human beings and become insensitive to their suffering
- Chase unattainable ideals
- May believe themselves to be perfect
Leadership coaching can help derailing Perfectionists attain a higher level of maturity and strengthen the elements of their traits that make a positive difference in this respect.
Tips for Strengthening the Perfectionist Trait
The most impactful step Perfectionists can take to improve is to stop trying to be perfect. They must recognize the difference between excellence and perfection and strive for the former.
Perfectionists must learn to settle for excellence.
Some other measures Perfectionists can take to play to their strengths are:
- Alternative solutions. Considering alternative perspectives allows Perfectionists to see that their solution may not be the only correct one.
- Settling for excellence. Being “merely” excellent is great. Settling for excellence allows Perfectionists to slow down and enjoy their work while becoming more effective leaders.
- Being patient with people. Perfectionists can earn the respect and loyalty of their reports by talking to them and actively listening to their problems.
- Cutting back on criticism. Perfectionist leaders must recognize that, like everyone else, they, too, are flawed. As such, they shouldn’t heap undue criticism on their reports and peers.
Working with Perfectionists
Working with Perfectionists may be more challenging than working with other leadership styles. To engage Perfectionists:
- Encourage them to interact with other personality types.
- Focus on quality over quantity to impress them.
- Set strict deadlines to dissuade Perfectionists from endlessly perfecting their things.
- Back your plans and proposals with solid data and proof.
- Get them to understand that leaders must sometimes make decisions using imperfect and incomplete data.
In its mature forms, Perfectionist leadership balances the pursuit of perfection with empathy and practicality. Executive coaching should aim to help perfectionist leaders acquire the ability to make this balance happen.