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Why messy action will do more for your leadership than perfectionism

What’s your biggest weakness? You know, this typical question you get asked in a job interview. "Perfectionism!" many high-achievers will admit! Thinking it’s a so-called ”acceptable weakness”. They are happy to be able to present themselves in a relatively positive light under these uncomfy circumstances.


Let's be honest: 5 minutes later, you might even drop that you hold yourself to the highest possible standards and are ready to expect the same from others.


Truth is, you kind of like it, isn't it? It pushes you further, makes you go the extra mile, delivers super high-quality stuff, and looks impeccable all the time. It probably even got you a couple of promotions. And sometimes even owes you a couple of envious looks.


Of course, you’ll tell me the expectations are anyway high: in your position, you need to deliver, you need to push, you need to be a step ahead. And you’re right.


But perfectionism is actually a much bigger weakness than you probably assume. So let me help you shift your perspective and save some precious energy.


The downside is actually bigger than you might expect.


A couple of years ago, a couple of researchers published an article in HBR after having combed through four decades of study on perfectionism to answer the question: Are perfectionists better performers at work?



Dare more - even if it's imperfect! Credit: Wix


In a nutshell, perfectionism is strongly and consistently related to numerous “detrimental” work and non-work outcomes, including higher levels of burnout, stress, workaholism, anxiety, and depression. Worse, the authors found no link between perfectionism and performance. Their results showed perfectionists are not better or worse performers than non-perfectionists.


What does perfectionism do to your leadership?


As a leader, you need to take action. You need to guide and make decisions.


The aspiring leaders I’m working with often reply "Easier said than done"!

  • What if it’s not well-articulated and needs to be refined?

  • What if it’s the wrong action? I don’t have all the information...

  • What if they don’t like what I decided to do?

  • Etc


I get them and at the same time, what if they don't do anything?


Your need for perfect articulation, perfect action, perfect timing, perfect solution, and perfect management will likely just be seen as a lack of leadership! So if perfectionism doesn't make you a better performer, it starts making you a low-performing leader. The point is your need for perfection will clash with your aspiration to be effective as a leader!


The real issue for perfectionist leaders


What’s the issue? There’s one core idea you need to bear in mind: leadership is not about you. If perfectionism can eventually push you to perform at a high level. Yet leadership is about making others perform at a high level!


"Everything about being a leader is like being a parent. It’s about committing to the well-being of those in our care and being willing to make sacrifices to see their interests advance so they may carry our banner long after we are gone,” reminds Simon Sinek in "Leaders Eat Last".


Leadership is not about you; it’s about your people. It’s about their need for orientation, their need for support and feedback, and their need to make sense of the situation.


That's why messy action always does more for your leadership than perfection.


The art of messy action


Start making every situation about your counterpart. Not about you! What do they need right now? To know more? To be listened to in their discomfort? To get a decision? Then action upon the answer


Of course, given the VUCA world we are evolving in, action might appear messy in the eye of a perfectionist. Because it implies the following:


  • act timely even if you don't feel ready,

  • act saying you don’t know about certain aspects yet,

  • act based on a good draft,

  • act based on hypothesis, 

  • just act!


You can start improving by making small steps. Start introducing grey in your black-and-white perspective: not everything must be perfect. And perfect is sometimes not what you think it is...


In a nutshell,


Being a perfectionist makes everything about you. The truth is nobody cares that you’re perfect except you. Perfectionism becomes an issue when you want to be a leader: because leadership is about your team. They need your guidance, your support, your care, and your presence, not your perfection. Both in good and bad times.


Perfectionism actually damages your effectiveness. As a perfectionist, you wouldn't like to be less effective than others ;-)?


So act! Decide! Communicate! Timely! Even imperfectly.

Now, which messy action are you're gonna take today?

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