Is Perfection Standing in the Way of Excellence?
By Cindy Barber
When I am working with leaders I see that, for sure, the most exhausted, burnt out, stressed out among the bunch tend to be the perfectionist crowd. While some wear perfectionism as a badge of nobility, what they don’t realize is that that “badge” is actually not only standing in the way of excellence and meaning but it is undermining their ability lead. Many people think of perfectionism as almost an elevated state of excellence but that is dangerous thinking because the two have significant differences. In the case of the perfectionist, author and researcher Dr. Brene brown in her book Daring Greatly calls perfection the 200 ton shield. What she has found in her research is that perfection is the attempt to deflect criticism and judgment. Perfection is externally motivated and is driven by what others will think. If we look perfect, have perfect work habits, perfect kids, perfect bodies, perfect homes, we won’t open up ourselves to criticism. We won't open the door to experience the shame that tells us we aren’t enough. In short, perfectionism’s focus on others opinion stands in the way of innovation, creativity and the very connection leaders need to have to be effective.
Excellence, on the other hand, is internally motivated. Its driver is not focused looking excellent but on being excellent. Not perfect, but a constant state of improvement and refinement. Excellence is adaptive and allows for failure, examination, reset and walking forward to become better. Perfectionism’s message is "be", while the message of excellence is “become”. We can’t achieve excellence if we are holding onto perfectionism because excellence is a process of always looking to grow and become better. It requires vulnerability, struggle, honest assessment and healthy self-talk. Because excellence rarely happens in a vacuum, it requires connection with other people, with similar values, walking the path of excellence with you. It often needs accountability.
More often than not, perfectionists, and I am a recovering one myself, will say that they don’t hold others to the same standards they hold themselves to. However, I would like to pose a question to those of you who struggle with this. Do you think those you lead feel the freedom to take risks and possibly make mistakes in the service of striving for excellence, innovation or creative solutions if what you are modeling for them is perfectionism? The old adage that actions speak louder than words is certainly true of leadership. In a perfectionistic culture, there is no room for flow and waters become stagnant. In a culture with excellence as a core value, the opposite is true. There is movement, flow and energy. It may sometimes be messy and risky but it is inspiring.