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Leadership & Perfectionism

Leadership & PerfectionismThis may be difficult for some the get their heads around, but perfectionism is not a leadership trait. Leadership requires attention to detail and a commitment to quality, but rarely does it require perfection. While leadership doesn’t require being perfect, it does require doing what is needed and necessary. Perhaps one of the biggest flaws with the concept of perfection is found in who defines perfect – the definition of perfection will almost always vary radically from person to person. In today’s post I’ll share my thoughts on the myth of perfection.

General George S. Patton said it best: “A good plan violently executed today is far and away better than a perfect plan tomorrow.” The pursuit of perfection is one of great adversaries of speed, performance, and execution. In fact, at the risk of being controversial I’m going to take the position that perfection does not exist. I hate to break it to you, but those of you who regard yourselves as perfectionists simply exhibit perfectionistic tendencies in an unrealistic attempt to achieve what cannot be had.

New Flash: speed trumps perfectionism. Perfectionists tend to be very busy, but rarely are they productive. Moreover, the pursuit of perfectionism rarely results in a competitive advantage, but it will result in time delays, cost overruns, missed deadlines, and unkept commitments. I would suggest that rather than seeking what cannot in most cases ever be achieved, that it makes more sense to seek the highest standard of quality that can be delivered in the shortest period of time, and that is economically balanced relative to the constraints of an ever shifting marketplace.

A huge problem for leaders who regard themselves as perfectionists is that they often set the chinning bar so high that others feel as if they cannot ever meet expectations. As a leader, if you find yourself always wondering “why others just don’t seem to get it” then you likely don’t value the contributions of others as much as you desire others to adopt your thinking. Leaders who fall prey to perfectionism tend to focus on the negatives having a hard time looking past perceived weaknesses to find strengths. The downside of this is that it stifles candor, creativity and innovation and often leads to a my way or the highway environment.

Here’s another pet peeve – the phrase “would you rather have something quick or right” makes me cringe every time I hear it. It is one of the most common copouts inept leaders use in masking their decisioning inadequacies. It’s as if using this phrase somehow justifies delaying pronouncement on the grounds that they currently possess insufficient information to make an astute decision. Almost without fail, this tactic is a trite and clichéd attempt to somehow insinuate that speed in decisioning is a weakness, and that quick decisions are somehow synonymous with reckless decisions. I would caution you against confusing speed with reckless abandon…I’m a big proponent of planning, assessment, analysis and strategy, but only if it is concluded in a timely fashion. “Analysis Paralysis” leads to missed opportunities and failed initiatives. Speed is your friend…embrace it…leverage it…win with it.

Time to face the facts: we live in a digital world where the speed of engagement, response, interaction, communication, delivery etc., was once a unique competitive value proposition – It is now a requirement for survival. As a leader you must quickly be able to assess risk and make timely decisions. Put simply, leaders cannot be successful being guided by fear and hesitation. I can tell you that without question the best leaders are able to make very complex decisions, on short time frames, and with incomplete information. If you don’t possess the experience or intellectual acuity to make quick decisions that are also good decisions, then you better surround yourself with sound counsel and advice from those who can.

While there is little debate that speed can create an extreme competitive advantage, it is not well understood that the lack of speed can send a company (or a career) into a death spiral. Agility, fluidity, decisiveness, commitment and focus all lead to the creation of speed which results in a certainty of execution. There is great truth in the old saying ”the best decision is a quick decision, the next best decision is no decision, and the worst decision is a slow decision.”

My bottom line is this…if you wear perfectionism as a badge of honor it is time for a shift in thinking. Others won’t see it as a badge of honor, but as a sign of pride, ego, arrogance or ignorance.

As always, I invite you to share your thoughts and observations in the comments below.

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    Conor Neill

    September 7, 2010 at 2:32 am

    I love a speech that I found via Ken Robinson's twitter stream (@sirkenrobinson, one of the top TED speeches) of Randy Nelson, dean of Pixar University – he says that the key skill of innovation is "failure recovery".
    Perfect is the enemy of good. Good is the enemy of great.


      September 7, 2010 at 8:40 am

      Thanks for the comment Conor. The observations cited in the TED speech you mentioned are spot-on. Thanks for weighing-in. Best wishes Conor.

    Get Your Leadership BIG On!

    September 7, 2010 at 4:36 am

    Mike – I'm a big believer in the power of visual to help tell a story and am fascinated by how picture of the fellow clipping his grass resonated with both of us. (I used the same photo in my post on perfectionism on 8/23/10 http://ow.ly/2ApE3 ) That photo is truly one of those image that speaks a 1000 words!


      September 7, 2010 at 8:42 am

      Thanks for bringing your post to my attention. I'll be sure and check it out. If we have the photo in common, there's not much doubt that are conclusions are similar as well. Thanks for sharing…


    September 7, 2010 at 6:42 am

    Great post. I especially like the mention of cringing when you hear you can either have it fast or right. I spent 20 years in the manufactured housing business, where right AND fast was the way we made profit. Now with my new business, I am teaching a new generation about these principles. My leadership training is from the Marine Corps. I completely agree with General Patton. While I encourage my team to do their best to make sure we have covered everything before we launch a new product, I would rather get the product to market and make a few small "improvements" than get beat to the punch.

    Thanks for the encouragement.


      September 7, 2010 at 8:46 am

      Mike – thanks for sharing. Your military background has clearly served you well as a civilian and it's because you know how to make the right decision quickly. This is a skill set that perfectionists simply don't possess. Best wishes Sir…

    Mark Oakes

    September 7, 2010 at 5:57 pm

    Great post, Mike

    Leaders always act in a vacuum of incomplete information. As such, no decision or subsequent action will ever be perfect. A helpful way to frame action is to look at everthing as a 'Draft' versus a masterpiece.

    As Bre Pettis once said…"There are three states of being; Not knowing, Action and Done"


    Avil Beckford

    September 8, 2010 at 7:18 am


    Once again a great post. In Benjamin Franklin's own words, "I conceived the bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral perfection. I wished to live without committing any fault at any time…But I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined." He later concluded that perfectionism doesn't exist.

    Perfectionism does not exist, but that does not mean that we should not strive to do our utmost best. The best leaders recognize the difference between doing their best and striving for perfection.



      September 8, 2010 at 10:46 am

      Thanks for the comment Avil. If I can be so bold as to offer my translation – Pursue quality as needed or necessary, but only to the extent that it is accretive and dilutive. If pursuit of perfection impedes the ability to execute, then it can't really be perfect can it? Thanks for sharing Avil…

    Forum Corporation

    September 8, 2010 at 10:31 am

    Great post … you mention the speed of the digital world. I wonder if we'll see a difference in terms of how younger generations approach perfectionism & failure, given digital fluency. Have you seen any trends there? – Steve


      September 8, 2010 at 10:42 am

      Hi Steve:

      An interesting question to be sure…Most of my experience with the younger generation's mentality with regard to the subject at hand is very positive. They tend to have a very good perspective on the need to blend quality with speed. I'm very bullish on younger talent and quite frankly feel that including their thoughts and opinions with regard to decisioning only improves the chances that the decision will be a good one. For those reading this comment, here is the take away – If your executive leadership team is void of youth, BIG PROBLEM – get some!

    Tanveer Naseer

    September 8, 2010 at 1:23 pm

    Mike, I'd like to share a quote from author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry which I shared in a piece I wrote about why we should focus on achieving "better" over perfection:

    "Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away."

    As you wrote at the beginning of this piece, one of the main pitfalls with seeking perfection is that its definition is subjective and based on our own experience. As I wrote in my piece on this, a good way to note this distinction is to ask 10 people what would constitute the perfect day. Of course, what you'd get is 10 different answers, and yet each of the answers are the right one for the person whose defining it.

    That's why leaders need to recognize that seeking perfection is an exercise in futility as it's a goal that only they can relate to, if not hard to quantify. It's also important to recognize that it's most likely driven by our sense of fear of not knowing whether our efforts will succeed or not, rather than out of a drive to ensure we deliver the best possible effort.


      September 8, 2010 at 2:10 pm

      Hi Tanveer:

      The concept of seeking "better" over "perfect" resonates with me. That said, some of the same potential pitfalls exist when searching for improvement. What's the definition of improvement? Is improvement really needed? Is the improvement meaningful or just make-work? In general, I concur with your observations and always value your input. Thanks Tanveer.


    September 8, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    Agree and disagree. The pursuit of perfection by an individual leaders isn't a leadership trait, but something worth going for. Demanding perfection from followers is like trying to teach a pig to speak English: you'll frustrate yourself and annoy the pig.


      September 8, 2010 at 2:04 pm

      Pigs become very angry when annoyed :). Great observations David. Thanks for sharing.

    Wally Bock

    September 8, 2010 at 2:40 pm

    Congratulations! This post was selected as one of the five best independent business blog posts of the week in my Three Star Leadership Midweek Review of the Business Blogs.

    Wally Bock

    Kevin W. Grossman

    September 9, 2010 at 7:58 am

    Right on. And you sure as heck won't be leading anyone for very long, much less a company of any size. Maybe a company of one, but I'm not sure how long you'll be in business…unless you're in the business of telling folks what not to be.

    Bob Landham

    September 9, 2010 at 8:04 am

    Very freeing truth Mike. 'Read The Myth of Excellence by Crawford and Matthews several years ago…you capture the best of a great truth aging boomers need to hear and pass along in the years we have left to influence anything at all. Vision is everything and perfectionism kills vision. Thanks


    October 5, 2010 at 1:28 am

    Alan Weiss, an independent consultant, use to say – we are here for success not for perfection. I tell that to myself a lot.


    October 7, 2010 at 8:17 am

    I think you could have made your point in a single statement "seek the highest standard of quality that can be delivered in the shortest period of time, and that is economically balanced relative to the constraints of an ever shifting marketplace".

    Action | Life with Lynn Witt

    January 7, 2011 at 11:34 am

    […] also recently read the following blog by @mikemyatt called the need for speed. In it, he describes why action is more important than […]

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