The Perfect Leader — Myth or Reality?

by | Jun 28, 2023 | Professional Growth

“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.”
— Vince Lombardi

Leaders are accountable for getting work done — not to be perfect. The marketplace and workplace are dynamic, where imperfection, change, and uncertainty are the norms. We are expected to act.

Is done better than perfect? The reality is we are rewarded to produce results to the best of our abilities. I cannot remember having a goal of perfection, or ever being recognized for perfect work. My proudest moments were achieving a goal by doing my best.

Do we expect our employees to be perfect? Are we expected to be perfect leaders? While the answer to both questions is no, it sure feels that way sometimes. The pressure to deliver results is real, and we must balance the need for a complete solution with expectations for timeliness.

What is perfectionism at work? Psychologists often define the behavior as the need to be or appear to be perfect, or even to believe that it is possible to achieve perfection. Perfectionists believe perfection is attainable, and typically view their behavior as a positive trait rather than a flaw. Their individual work may be high quality yet costly to the organization. Reworking an idea too far, never being satisfied or moving on. Constantly asking for more data, more time, etc. can lead to analysis paralysis. Example — spending an hour writing and rewriting a two-sentence email. Perfectionists struggle with this type of example regularly, taxing their capacity to move on and get things done.

Perfectionist leaders can be difficult to work for, as they are never satisfied. There is a famous story of a perfectionist executive who was assigned to work with an intern. He assigned the intern to draft a paper resolving a difficult business problem. The intern researched the issue, submitted his analysis, and made an appointment to see the executive. As the intern entered the large office, the leader paid little attention to him. He found the report in his basket, unread, impatiently asked “Is this the best you can do?” The intern nervously said, “I think so.” The executive made eye contact, left the report on his desk, and excused him. The intern made another appointment a week later, and the situation repeated itself. The report remained on the executive’s desk, clearly unread. Finally, on his third visit the executive asked the intern “is this the best you can do?” The intern confidently said “Yes, it is.” He looked at the document, and said “OK, now I will read it.”

A painful lesson for the intern to be more confident. Also a lesson in how not to treat your people.

High expectations work well when we teach, not intimidate, and encourage those who rely on us to be their personal best. To be our personal best, we are expected to act with the information available to us. Some studies suggest successful managers are about 65% correct when making decisions. I recall an early supervisor encouraging me to be responsive, even when I did not have all the facts. Her advice was to be practical versus perfect, that by waiting for all the information the problem has often already been solved or no longer needs attention. She led by asking great questions about the information she had, not “I need more time, more data, more….” She reminded me a perfect solution delivered late can be irrelevant, as the problem being solved no longer is an issue.

Great leaders act and adapt. Adaptability, not perfectionism, is what we need to excel.

Three keys to managing your perfectionism:

  • Recognize the opportunity cost and time of your behavior
    • Point of diminishing returns — realize when to put in more time or move on
  • Manage your self-criticism
    • A typo is not the end of the world — beating yourself up is not healthy
  • Set achievable goals
    • Include the need to adapt to changing conditions

Adversity reveals who we really are. Walt Bettinger, the CEO of Charles Schwab, has an interesting technique when interviewing candidates for leadership roles. He takes the candidate to breakfast and asks the restaurant manager to intentionally mess up the candidate’s breakfast order. He watches the candidate react — are they upset, rude, or do they manage the situation with grace. Breakfast is not perfect nor are the people we lead. There is always someone waiting for you — not to be perfect but to act.

Leading Your Team

What kind of perfectionist are you? The link below will help you identify your perfectionist tendencies. Complete the assessment and see which of the five types apply to you. Self-awareness is the first step toward understanding and change.

The Five Kinds of Perfectionists

Read to Lead

Leaders benefit from being active readers, long reads not just social media posts and news feeds. A deep read builds concentration, strengthens your intellectual capacity, and offers wisdom you can share. As you refresh or build your reading habit, diversify your experience – old, new, fiction, non-fiction, audio, hard cover, and e-readers.

My June 2023 favorites:

The Book of Charlie by David Von Drehle
A journalist moves to Kansas and meets Charlie, a neighbor who was over a hundred years old — and profoundly changed his life. They began a long friendship where he learned about Charlie’s incredible life, of wins and losses. The author was planning to write a book for his children on living a good life, and soon realized a book about Charlie was the answer. An inspiring read for all of us to better understand our journey, and the power of welcoming and learning from strangers.

Built From the Fire by Victor Luckerson
A multigenerational story of a family and Tulsa’s Greenwood district, known as “Black Wall Street.” I had heard about The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 and wanted to hear the full story. One of the most brutal acts of racist violence in U.S. history, a mob destroyed the Greenwood community including murdering as many as three hundred people. The horrible event attempted to smother black independence through Jim Crow laws. A powerful book that upholds the Greenwood community as a symbol of strength and solidarity.