How to Check Perfectionism at the Door - Keys to Becoming An Effective Leader

Mary Poppins described herself as “perfectly perfect in every way”. Some of us nourish that same self image as we sing or think to ourselves, "What’s the matter with people today? Why can’t they be like me, perfect in every way?”

Everyone I know, myself included, has blemishes. We don’t return some form of communication (email, twitter, facebook, text, whatever) as quickly as we know we should. In fact, the longer we take to return the message, the more difficult it is to get back to the person; and we find ourselves hoping/believing that they’ll forget about it or just drop the subject all together.

We share other foibles as well. We transpose dates or numbers. We say something when the better course would have been to say nothing. We hold others more accountable than we hold ourselves. We make errors in judgement.

I would call those little blips natural imperfections; and they are part of the human condition. No one seems to be exempt. So if we are all imperfect, does that also make us habitually incompetent? Well, in some things, yes; and in others, no.

Let’s use recruiting and hiring as a classic business example. I know of at least one nationally recognized speaker who loves to tell business owners that many of the people working for them are “morons, misfits, and moochers.” The crowd usually laughs, sometimes politely and sometimes in a really hardy guffaw. When I hear that, I often wonder what level of responsibility some of the people in the audience accept for having built such a slapstick organization. The answer? Probably very little. After all, imperfection in the human race runs rampant. 

Then, I wonder if they consider themselves as morons, misfits, or moochers when it comes to leadership. Since many of them have lifestyles that put them in the notorious and infamous 1% category, I doubt they consider themselves as either imperfect or incompetent.

So how do we overcome Natural Imperfection before it turns into Habitual Incompetence? Here’s a series of steps I’ve used myself and that others I coach find helpful.

  1. Check your cape at the door. Being more powerful than a locomotive, faster than a speeding bullet, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound worked well in the movies; but every form of delusion and refuge has its price. This one could be high in terms of bungled relationships among clients, colleagues, and family.

  2. Develop a sense of personal objectivity by recognizing yourself as a member of the human race. Missing a deadline, blowing a deal, losing a client doesn’t make you or anyone else a failure. It just gives you some feedback on what you might want to do differently next time around. Rather than brood over what others might call a failure, rejoice in your expanded awareness. Take a tip from Edison. He had over 1,000 learning experiences before he saw light.

  3. Recognize most of the world sees things differently than you see them. That will help you build a stronger rapport with those around you, increase the effectiveness of your leadership style, and greatly increase the amount of personal influence with others.

  4. If people you depend upon consistently disappoint you, ask yourself first and the other person second if your expectations are realistic, clearly stated, and prioritized. If either of you answers “no” to any of those three, go back to the drawing board and start over.

  5. Learn how to shift between personal influence and organizational power. It takes both to be an effective leader and a manager. That synergy produces sustainable results. Most of us are only average in using this dynamite combination. Fortunately, both skills can be learned by those who are open to doing so.

  6. Assume that the average human being has an average level of competence. Design work systems and processes that make it easy for her/him to be successful. The challenge with human performance almost always lies in the process.

Ah, the relentless pursuit of perfection. Give it up. Go after sustained excellence. That’s something you can achieve.


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