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Perfection Vs. Excellence in Leadership

I read an interesting post on Perfection by Dr. Ellen Weber over at Brain Based Business, Why Perfectionism is Bad for the Brain.  Dr. Weber talked about the downside of perfectionism and how much it can hurt individually as well when working on teams.

As a project manager, I have lead a number of project teams.  I have been labeled as too critical and as a perfectionist before and so the article stung a little.  I know there is a fine line between high expectations and perfectionism.  So here is the thing that I wonder about as a frequent leader of teams- how do you encourage (push?) people to be the best they can be without coming off as critical and a perfectionist?

The topic reminds me of the style of leadership that Daniel Goleman calls the pacesetting style.  In Primal Leadership, written by Goleman, Boyatzis, and McKee, Pacesetters are described as individuals with a high personal drive to achieve.  They drive those around them very hard and make it clear that they expect excellence and are disatisfied with anything less.  They push for continuous improvement and put pressure on all team members to perform at their highest level.    Highjump

The upside of pacesetting leadership is that you raise the bar for others.  Studies have shown that people will generally perform at about the level that we expect.  If we don’t expect much from team members, they aren’t likely to overdeliver.  Conversely, when we expect a lot, we generally get it.

The downside of the pacesetter style of leadership is exactly the point made by Dr. Weber; paralysis.  When a pacesetting leader says they are dissatisfied with the current performance, team members feel alienated, criticized, and unappreciated.  “Why bother?” is what team members may say in response to a pacesetting leader.

How do we strike a balance between expecting a lot from people without seeming like a perfectionist?  Clearly I am still learning in this area, but here are five tips I would recommend.  I also welcome you to weigh in with your own thoughts.

  1. Set Goals with the Team – Many leaders don’t set goals with the team; choosing instead to criticize or draw attention to areas of improvement.  Try setting stretch goals that are achievable and do so in advance.  This lets people know what you expect and gives them a chance to buy in.
  2. Make a habit of recognizing the positive – If you are the type who always recognizes the positive, people will know you see the entire picture even though you expect a lot and sometimes seem to be picky about the results.  Get in the habit of catching people doing something right as much as you can.
  3. Set the bar high for others, but get feedback – Holding the bar high is great; sometimes though we need to check in to make sure we are realistic.  Most people I have encountered like to have the bar held high, that is, they want me to have high expectations for them.  To be effective though, I need to check back with them to make sure that the bar isn’t too high.
  4. Lead by personal example – We communicate as strongly with our actions as with our words.  Set high standards for yourself and follow through on what you say you will do.  Strive to do your very best work every day.
  5. Focus on excellence, not perfection – Excellence is about doing the best we can do; perfection is unattainable for humans.

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  1. Ellen Weber

    Thanks for the great post and for the link, Anthony. What I like about the leading by personal example segment of this post — is that it is so modeled here! Great inspiration.

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