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The quest for authentic leadership

Letting go of perfectionism

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What is perfection?

Wikipedia defines perfection as “a state, variously, of completeness, flawlessness or supreme excellence”. Flawlessness and excellence though don’t mean the same thing. 

According to the English dictionary, flawlessness means “having no defects or faults, especially none that diminish the value of something”. Excellence, on the other hand, is defined as “possessing an outstanding quality, remarkably good”. While there is scope for improvement in excellence, flawlessness is definitive – no shortcomings are possible.

In the context of excellence, perfection drives the human race forward – in the context of flawlessness, it serves no real purpose other than holding people back. We continually strive for perfection in the belief that a flawless performance will give us the cherished prize: our self – worth. The goal (and whether or not we accomplish it) defines our success and what we learnt in the process becomes irrelevant. What we do becomes who we are!

My Own Story

At the start of my management career, I would put 110% effort, yet sometimes I had too little to show for it, as most of my time and energy was going into checking (and rechecking!) the work of others.

Eventually, the constant quest for perfection became exhausting and a burden, creating feelings of unfulfillment and unhappiness not only for me but also for those around me whom I was (subconsciously) judging based on the same standards. Only when I was in the throes of full-fledged burnout did I feel the need to reflect on the reasons and underlying beliefs that were driving this obsession. It suddenly hit me – I wasn’t obsessed with perfection; I was scared of failure!

I was fretting over any mistake and how this could reflect badly on me, so I was trying to be in control by going over and over my team’s work. Without realising at the time, I had allowed this fear to determine how the team was run. As a result, I ended up restricting our joint ability to learn from mistakes and grow, both as individuals and collectively.

It was time to start living with the possibility of mistakes! Not an easy task considering that I had been carrying my perspective on perfection since childhood. I had to retrain my brain to see mistakes as learning opportunities. To achieve this, I had to start with me:

  • The first step was to show compassion to me whenever I made a mistake;
  • The next step was to exercise authentic leadership by providing a safe space for others to make mistakes and empowering their development and growth.

Reclaiming your authenticity

Breaking free from the shackles of perfection requires that you let your armour down. It takes courage to show the world who you are. It feels scary because some people may judge you. To be authentic requires:

  • a degree of self-awareness; you know yourself, your strengths and weaknesses;
  • grit to “rumble with vulnerability” (Brene Brown). You are not perfect – and you are not afraid to acknowledge that;
  • acceptance that things won’t always work out. Others may call that “failure”; you name it an “opportunity to learn and grow”;
  • clarity of your values and being able to live by them.

Three steps to authentic leadership

Over the years, I have coached many new and aspiring managers in organisations, and perfectionism is a recurring theme. The underlying issue, in most cases, is a conflict between who do the individuals want to be and who they “should be” based on expectations set upon them by others.

When this conflict emerges, I invite individuals to do the following exercise:

  • Step 1: Imagine you take the decision that is the closest to your values.
    • How would you acknowledge yourself? How will you feel about staying true to yourself?
    • What would others (your manager, your team, your family, or friends) notice about you?
  • Step 2: Imagine yourself ten years from now, being a successful senior leader in the organisation. You have been successful because you took the straightforward path, the choice that met the expectations of others.
    • What have you given up along the way to achieve this success?
    • How will you feel? How will you acknowledge yourself?
    • What advice would you give your younger self or the young members of the team who look up to you?
  • Step 3: Imagine yourself writing the speech for your retirement party.
    • How would you like to describe yourself in your speech?

By the end of the exercise, the individuals have clarity on the path that is right for them and move towards an action plan.

Not all of them opt for the route to authentic leadership. Sometimes, external factors, like a promotion, play a significant role in their decision-making process. But as they make this decision consciously, they feel comfortable with it.

On the other hand, some decide the path forward based on their values; they are ready to start the journey towards self-acceptance and self-actualisation as leaders. I hope you will be one of them.

References

Various quotes: https://quotefancy.com

Perfection definition: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perfection

Brene Brown (2018). Dare to Lead. Penguin Books.

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