Why Great Leaders Don’t Believe in Perfectionism

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By Jas Singh

Three weeks ago, I was very excited. As part of a large scale search we were working on, I was due to spend three full days with the Chief Creative Officer at one of the largest luxury brands in the world.

This gentleman is a celebrity in his own right. Responsible for creating some of the most anticipated trends each year. Renowned in the fashion industry as a hard worker and big thinker.

I was ready for three days of inspiration and seeing the best in action.

Things started well. After a great conversation over breakfast on Oxford Street we hit the offices. Right, here we go I thought. Here comes the brilliance. The whole point of me shadowing this superstar was to learn more about the business and ideally even find another protégée for the future.

Yet after endless meetings, never-ending planning and way too many dreamer type conversations about what the future of the fashion industry should look like, the truth was that the experience was an anti-climax. Borderline disappointing. You see, we didn’t actually get anything done.

On the final Wednesday evening, after my client and I had enjoyed dinner a very good bottle of Vosne-Romanee , he finally opened up. In fact, he did more than that – he actually got very emotional. The truth started to flow – he honestly told me that the last three days had revealed a truth that he had known deep down for the last five years.

He’d reached a designers version of writers block and getting things done felt impossible.

Work had become overwhelming, a chore and he’d been hiding it from his colleagues, the public, even himself.

He tearfully told me that his best days were behind him.

The next two hours of transparent conversation was more useful than the previous entire three days.

We went over his entire career. The young free days as an aspiring design student. His first big break. The recognition. The fame. And then how things just seemed to well….fizzle out. How the expectation and standards he had set himself became an effort to reach. How everything he did became a chore.

Believe it or not, what my client was suffering on his very common in all aspects of business.

It’s a trait that many of us associate with brilliance, but which eventually leads to being overwhelmed, even depressed.

In a nutshell, I call it perfectionism.

The problem

Perfectionism or “Over-perfectionism” is now a well publicised and recognised psychological trait. Re-renowned institutions now even dedicate much time and effort to its effective diagnosis and management.

The problem is we live in a society where to stand out, to be recognised, in some cases even to feel connected you need to be the best. We recognise those who are winners. Those who seem faultless. Those who seem perfect.

From Mark Zuckerberg’s perfect journey as an entrepreneur to Jennifer Lopez’s perfect skin – we all strive for perfection. Anything else is just, well, not perfect.

Ironically, perfectionism is something suffered by those who are highest achievers. Those who we would expect to be the most content. However, usually the exact opposite is true. Due to past recognition and “perfect” performance, high achievers feel like they have to at least reach their past performance levels to be good enough.

All of us have a deep rooted human desire to grow – to get better. Those already starting on a pedestal have to work harder just to stay where they are. And so they stop taking action. Work, relationships, life becomes too much. And so they mull over past success wondering what they have “now lost”. And slowly spiral into depression.

This symptom is well recognised with athletes. The highest performing athletes – right up to Olympic gold medallists – have been shown to have much higher than average instances of depression post competition.  After working years just to win that one single event – followed by the fast rush of recognition and reward, life is perfect. IT’s the highest point, and a feeling they all want to re-create. Yet repeating that again – in any aspect of life, just seems too intimidating, too hard.

Perfectionism kills their drive.

The solution

Someone once said perfectionism is self-abuse of the highest order.

I couldn’t agree more. You see perfectionism is just an illusion. Perfect doesn’t exist – things can always be improved. And as long as that is the case, there is no such things as being absolutely perfect.

What does exist is outstanding. Or revolutionary. Or pioneering. Or amazing. Being outstanding is fun, you enjoy the ride and strive constantly to better yourself. Trying to be perfect is just delaying the inevitable – the realisation that one day you will discover that just like mother nature and the seasons we all have natural highs and lows. It’s part of life.

The only cure to perfectionism is perspective. To realise that perfect doesn’t exist. As long as we believe that something has to be done perfectly, first time around, we will procrastinate. We have to realise that all any of us can do is our best – and then try to improve each time.

In fact one of the common complaints I get from companies nowadays is how super-smart graduates fail to presist and stick around. Is it any wonder? After years of seemingly “perfect” grades and fast progression, these candidates can’t accept that they have to learn from the bottom – that they have to work hard for many years just to be recognised. They all want to be CEO as quickly as possible.

Great leaders substitute any feelings of perfectionism with the one magic word – action. Rather than stress about how things turn out and will be recieved they just do it.

We all have perfect dreams. But only very few of us act to make them happen.

Conclusion

Nobody is perfect.

Whilst important to attract ambitious people, hiring managers should realise that perfectionism can be just as damaging as useful. As long business involves people, there will always be ups and downs.

Celebrate the wins, but embrace your mistakes.

Forget being perfect. Just be satisfied with being the best you can be.

It’s the most attractive quality of all :)

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