The Failures of a Perfect Leader

Imagine an employee in your organization who arrives early for work every day. He also stays late. He is the type of person who “sweats the small stuff.” He is extremely careful to cover all the details. He knows the policies and procedures of the organization inside and out. And he follows them precisely. He gives you 110% commitment all of the time.

Now imagine that this employee is a liability.

To understand how this can happen, I need to tell you about Don (not his real name). Don was one of those “sweat the small stuff” individuals. He worked harder than anyone in his organization. He was scrupulous about his efforts. He was also less successful than any of his colleagues.

Hard work did not pay off for Don because he was a perfectionist. I did not need to identify this characteristic for him, he already knew it about himself and he came to me for help with it. He was precise about his work, although that precision was bought at the expense of speed. But he persevered and worked very hard.

His liabilities were exposed in many arenas:

Don was good with the technical aspects of his job. He was not good with people. Unfortunately he was in a job that primarily involved people contact.

He did not vary a process once he determined how it “should” be done. This rigidity did not serve him in his efforts to work with the real situations people presented. He could not adapt to the situations that were outside the policy and procedure manual, and got angry if he was asked to do so.

He was a disaster on teams. Don did not value or practice cooperative work. He could not share his ideas and was not open to the thoughts of team members.

He was not very creative, but he could be relied on to produce the same level of quality each time he engaged in a task. He did what he was told, either by his boss or by the book, but he was disturbed by the demands for self-directed thinking. He opposed change. He resisted new ideas. Don could not see the big picture. He was detail-bound.

Without being able to see the big picture, his decisions, in an attempt to solve the issue at hand, created havoc for the future of the organization. He was unable to step back and take the long view. He did not even consider the implications of a decision for the organization five years into the future. As a result, his “savings” end up costing the organization a significant amount of money, market share, and/or good will in the long run.

He was miserable, and the organization was suffering.

Then Don went on vacation. When he returned I saw something in him that I had not seen before. He was excited as he asked me a question.

“Do you know the difference between an authentic Navajo rug and a cheap rip-off?” he asked.

I did not.

“A cheap rip-off,” he announced, “is perfect. The authentic Navajo rug always has a flaw in it!” The Navajo weavers, he explained to me, intentionally build a flaw into each rug as a reminder that humans are not perfect. In their spirituality, perfection is not to be sought after. It would make us less than human.

For a rug with a flaw in it, the cost is in excess of $2000. The perfect rug will sell for less than $150. There is a lesson in this.

Don was able to use this image to remind himself that it was good not to be perfect. He not only became happier as a result, he saw his work life dramatically improve. He was able to appreciate the people he worked with as he learned to accept himself. He was also able to discover new creativity in himself. He had always been unwilling to try new thing because he could not be certain he would be able to perform without errors.

As he let go of his need for perfection, he was free to try, and even to fail, and learn from the experience.
Success, for Don, required that he let go of the rigidity of needing to be perfect. He still worked hard and put effort into being as precise as possible, but he now used “excellence” as his standard rather than “perfection.”

Signs of a Perfectionist:

~ Fear of making a mistake
~ Rigid adherence to the “right” way of doing things
~ Inability to think independently
~ Resistant to change
~ Cannot work quickly even when the situation demands

Sometimes we think we can transcend the condition of being human. We have machines that are built for precision and we begin to use those machines as metaphors to understand ourselves (e.g. the brain is like a computer).

In reality, we are much more like a butterfly than a machine. Our gift to the universe is not in precision but in creativity. We are more successful when we let machines be instruments of precision and we live as
human beings.

Perfect does not mean perfect actions in a perfect world, but appropriate actions in an imperfect one. (R.H. Blyth)


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