Contributed by CEO Coach Henna Inam
Are you a perfectionist? Do you feel like nothing is ever really good enough until it’s perfect? Like many of us, do you try to be the perfect person for every situation or role you play? If you’re like me, you want the intelligence and tenacity of Hillary Clinton and the thighs of Ms. Universe (even the complete package of Mrs. Clinton isn’t good enough!!).
After years of struggling with applying high standards to everything (including myself) I’m beginning to realize that there is a large space between being perfect and being powerful. I’ve realized that if I want to reach my true leadership potential, I have to stop trying to be perfect. I work with my executive coaching clients to help them see that as well.
True story. About a year ago, I dropped my smartphone and the glass screen cracked, although the phone still worked. At first, I didn’t want to spend the money to get a new phone since my contract wasn’t done. Then it became an interesting experiment, a fun makeshift Rorschach test (remember the inkblot test that psychologists use to evaluate what we’re really thinking?)
As I would carry the phone with its cracked glass, some friends suggested that someone of my status really shouldn’t be carrying a cracked phone. What would “they” think? Other people would look at it with distaste. Really, I should have higher standards. As high-achievers, many of us set ourselves up for meeting impossible standards of being “perfect” according to some external (media, parents’, friends’) definition of perfection. Oftentimes buried under that need is the belief that unless we’re perfect, we’re not good enough. We hide the “cracks in our glass” for fear of not being accepted as we are. Mostly it’s because we don’t accept ourselves as we are.
The real reason I carry around my phone now is to remind myself, “I may not be perfect but I still work”! What’s this got to do with leadership? Actually, the only place to start any leadership growth is from where we are – a place of acceptance of our imperfections. Our attachment to perfection can actually hinder our performance and potential in five ways:
How Being Perfect Hinders Our Potential
1. It undermines risk-taking and learning. When we set flawless standards of performance, how willing are we to take risks and learn? Any leadership growth requires us to push ourselves outside our comfort zones to try something new. I remember a time in college when it was my final semester. I so wanted to maintain my “perfect” 4.0 college GPA, I actually took a couple of classes that were well below my level of proficiency in order to “guarantee” an A. I didn’t learn anything new, but it did fulfill my need for self-esteem. How does this play out at work? Are we afraid to ask for or take on new stretch assignments for fear that “we’re not ready”? How willing are we to let our team members take risks, fail, and learn? How does this disempower us and others?
2. It causes anxiety and stress. Our growth and performance actually decline when we are under the stress of impossible performance standards. Has this happened to you? What about when we impose these standards of perfection on our teams or our peers? How do they respond? How does our desire to be the best impact collaboration with others? How does this impact our own sense of work life sanity?
3. It causes resistance to feedback. Our need to be seen as “perfect” can prevent us from seeking out and even hearing developmental feedback from others. We can surround ourselves with people who are less smart than us, or people who will always agree with us. How does this undermine our growth and the results of our team?
4. Lowers our connection to others. The mask that we use to hide our flaws from others also prevents authentic connection. As we start to accept our flaws and see ourselves as we are, we are able to be vulnerable and let others see us. This “being human” vs. “being perfect” is a powerful basis for creating trust and engagement in teams.
5. Undermines recognition and engagement. When we are so focused on attaining a “flawless” standard of performance, we fail to appreciate the contributions we and others have already made. Our focus is narrowed on the ever-present gap between where we are and perfection (a standard that tends to move up, just out of reach). We miss recognition of positive progress which is an important fuel of engagement and energy for ourselves and others.
Perfection and Power
I used to think accepting my flaws was sort of like giving up any hope of growing and becoming better. This could be a serious career-limiting move especially if you’re in the leadership growth business!
Here’s what I’ve discovered. There is a large space between being perfect and being powerful. For us high achievers, embracing our flaws allows us to detach “being perfect” from “being worthy,” and that is when we’re able to be powerful enough to be ourselves.
So what’s the solution?
The original meaning of the word “perfect” from its Greek roots was not “without flaw” as it’s known in the English language in the last 400 years. The original root was about “completed for, or suited to a particular purpose.” We don’t have to be without flaw to be suited to a particular purpose. There are countless examples throughout history of great and flawed leaders who were perfectly suited to their purpose.
Abraham Lincoln, arguably the most admired President in U.S. history, had plenty of flaws as detailed in this article: “He could be petulant. His humor was often coarse. He sacrificed principles in the name of expediency. He fired with alacrity generals who failed once to achieve victory but tolerated others whose political influence blinded him to their chronic incompetence. Despite those flaws, he was the model of what a president should be: a steady guardian of his country, a shrewd judge of human nature, a man able to give voice to his country’s noblest professions.” When we don’t hold U.S. Presidents to impossible standards of perfection, why do we do this to ourselves?
The key to our power is to accept our imperfections as part of the purpose we are suited for. I have found in my executive coaching work that our biggest flaws can also be our biggest strengths and vice versa. Here is a list of some of the “imperfections” I’ve carried around like burdens thinking that I needed to somehow change myself in order to be a good leader and executive. I’m an introvert who grew up in a family and culture that celebrates extroverts. I prefer connecting deeply with a few people rather than meeting 300 people at company functions. I prefer to listen rather than talk. Unlike the classic image of many CEOs and senior executives, I don’t enjoy the spotlight. I’d rather let someone else have it. I shy away from exerting power. I had an “aha moment” when I realized that these same “flaws” make me a great executive coach for others and exercising these same “flaws” brings me tremendous joy in the work that I do. Our flaws are part of our power because they are part of our essence. Being in our essence is the most fulfilling way of being in our power.
As I work with my executive coaching clients, I help them to see and accept who they are authentically. From this place of acceptance, our goal is not to change who they are, but for them to choose who they are. Instead of constantly conforming to some external standard of perfection, the work that is most empowering for them is to expand their self-awareness of who they are, why and how they want to lead, and the unique contributions they are suited to make in their organizations. Here is why this works. They have much greater ownership of a higher vision of themselves they create. They are willing to stick with goals that help them be the kind of leader they already are, and are inspired to be.
They reframe their definition of success by creating an authentic leadership brand. Their brand integrates their personal sense of purpose, strengths, and core values. They learn to ease their desire to “be perfect” based on some kind of external standard in favor of “being powerful” in an authentic way. They learn new leadership practices that help them act on the leadership brand they have created. As we follow the “purpose we are suited for”, our work starts to feel like our calling. We unleash higher levels of engagement, results, and well-being. As we accept and celebrate our own essence, we are able to see and celebrate that of others around us. The space between “being perfect” and “being powerful” is the journey of transformational leadership. I welcome you to join me in this journey.
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Henna Inam is CEO of Transformational Leadership Inc., a company focused on helping women achieve their potential to be transformational leaders. A former C-Suite executive with Fortune 500 companies, her passion is to help leaders be successful, deeply engaged, and create organizations that drive breakthroughs in innovation, growth and engagement. Connect @hennainam. Subscribe to her blog at www.transformleaders.tv.