The Perils of Perfectionism – Leadership Excellence Vs. Leadership Perfection

As a leader, how do you pursue excellence? How do you differentiate between excellence and perfection? Does it matter?  

Perfectionistic leaders develop the skills to blend reason, logic, emotion and insight. They rely on these tools to affirm their sense of purpose—a strategy that helps them solve and avoid problems, while providing them motivation and comfort.

Perfectionists strive for excellence and virtue in everything they do, notes psychotherapist and leadership consultant Beatrice Chestnut, PhD, in The 9 Types of Leadership: Mastering the Art of People in the 21st Century Workplace (Post Hill Press, 2017). Their quest, however, manifests as a noticeable compulsion and calculated culture that alienates many employees.

As I wrote in my last post, perfectionism manifests in three domains: self-oriented, other-oriented and socially-prescribed. When this topic comes up with my coaching clients, we discuss the three domains:

  • Self-oriented perfectionism (imposing an unrealistic desire to be perfect on oneself)
  • Other-oriented perfectionism (imposing unrealistic standards of perfection on others)
  • Socially-prescribed perfectionism (perceiving unrealistic expectations of perfection from others)

I agree with Brené Brown, PhD, who writes in The Gifts of Imperfection (Hazelden, 2010):

“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfection is not about healthy achievement and growth…Healthy striving is self-focused: ‘How can I improve?’ Perfectionism is other-focused: ‘What will they think?’” 

Though perfection is truly unattainable, perfectionistic leaders remain unconvinced. They continue to push for their desired outcomes, even as the consequences of their actions call for corrections.

If you spot some of these tendencies in your behavior, you may, indeed, be a perfectionist. Despite your best intentions, you could be causing your people and organization to struggle. The more you focus on raising the bar, the less likely you are to see the harmful effects on those around you.

What do you think? I’d love to hear from you. You can reach me here and on LinkedIn.