Why perfectionism makes leadership more difficult
If you get too consumed with the details, you can be distracted from the bigger picture, especially when seeking high leadership positions
When speaking on a virtual platform for over 1,500 law enforcement professionals, I challenged them to consider, “What are you afraid of professionally?” Resoundingly, the responses to the question reverberated with failing others, being unworthy or not good enough, and not being perfect. I wasn’t surprised. As a new supervisor, I was excited about my new leadership role, but I had an incredible fear of failing. Due to that fear, I picked up a habit, or behavior, of perfectionism.
There are entanglements with perfectionism. The habit of perfectionism is a delicate dance as it can become a deceptive behavior. Once upon a time in your career, perfectionism might have served you well to help you stay on top of the details and create efficiency and effectiveness in your leadership. However, if you get too consumed with the details, you can be distracted from the bigger picture, especially when seeking high leadership positions. It can make you afraid to take risks and make decisions and allow the same for those you lead.
Perfectionism held me back
I had over 11 years of service before being promoted, but I had little experience supervising other officers. The transition from a senior officer with confidence and competence was quickly replaced with uncertainty and a lack of knowing what I didn’t know yet. My security blanket was to understand policy and procedures and stay within the black-and-white lines of general orders and standard operating procedures. However, I was too afraid to balance the risk of decisions not within those lines. I didn’t want to make a mistake or get it wrong. I had this expectation of myself and what I felt others expected of me … perfection.
Over time, I learned that perfectionism wasn’t serving me well. It was diminishing my confidence and limiting my potential for my next promotion. I had to learn how to release the control I thought I had and learn to delegate with development. I had to change how I prioritized and moved from being risk-averse to having more measured risk-taking moments to build my tolerance for areas I needed to improve. I discovered that it was not as catastrophic to make a mistake or not have the answer right when asked. What I didn’t know, I brought in those that did. Humility can be a superpower for leaders.
Perfectionism is rooted in fear of failure
Perfectionism rooted in fear stifles decision-making and holding on to what we think we can control. Some notable researchers, authors and leaders tie our fear of failure to our fear of shame deeply rooted in each of us. I know I’ve toiled with my fears and perfectionism for years. It has taken me many years to agree that it's OK not to be perfect and that I have never been. I also had to reconsider my definition of failure for myself. For you see, it was the root of my underlying fears and the formation of the habit of perfectionism. Failing felt like I was not good enough to be in the position, and all those past and current naysayers and doubters of my ability might be right.
However, we all have different definitions of failure that stem from childhood experiences, traumatic incidents, or challenging moments on the job when we didn’t get it right. These experiences can make us shy away from even showing up, and we carry that dread with us for a long time. We become so afraid of what other people think that we overthink and begin to develop the habit of perfectionism. No, we don’t want to mess up intentionally, but we must understand that we learn, grow and achieve from a place of not earning the approval of others but our acceptance of our worthiness and value. It becomes personal, not professional.
Early in the year, I met a group of law enforcement middle managers and executives participating in a leadership development program. All of them were very enthusiastic about the training and the future possibilities for them after this experience. As I spent a little time with them over the next couple of days, I observed that several of them had an external focus tied to their performance, productivity, and potential.
I asked, "How does it make you feel to have this pressure from others on you?" A few had responses that rationalized the need for the pressure to be better leaders. I don't necessarily disagree, but I wanted a deeper understanding of the actual or perceived fears attached to those expectations. Eventually, one of the executives quietly said, "It makes me afraid to get it wrong but more so the fatigue of always worrying about not getting it right."
The habit of perfectionism can become a deeply rooted behavior. In trees and plants, roots are designed to let us know the condition of their health, longevity and failure in the root system. As leaders, we must be careful not to overly laud efforts of perfectionism without understanding there could be underlying considerations. As many of us know, on the surface, our people and ourselves, will appear as though we have it all together. However, underneath, we do not.
As you build your leadership resilience, keep this in mind. Striving for excellence is not perfection. Perfectionism steeped in fear is self-limiting and self-deceptive. Build strength around your feelings about shame, worthiness and readiness for your leadership role by learning to view yourself with compassion and forgiveness.
Perfectionism feelings should be questioned
Assess when you feel the pressure to be perfect and question those moments honestly with yourself. Who, what, and why are you feeling the need to be perfect? What are you afraid of in those moments? Many times, I was placing that pressure on myself. There was no one else to blame, just me.
Perfectionism does not have to be a leadership entanglement of self-deception and distraction. Remember, habits that turn into behaviors can be changed. It takes time to build a habit to create a behavior that embraces hard things interwoven with wisdom.