Are You Pursuing Perfection?

One of the four leadership personality types, as described by Michael Maccoby in Narcissistic Leaders: Who Succeeds and Who Fails (Crown Business, 2012) is an obsessive, or perfectionistic leader. They are driven by a need for security, consistency, rules and logical order. You’ll spot them in every field—especially government bureaucracies, engineering firms, and law and financial offices.

As leaders, they focus on operations, details and numbers. The most productive obsessives are viewed as “systematic” or “analytical.” These leaders can lay strong foundations for their organizations as they:

  • Aim for the highest standards, through ethical conduct and honorable motives
  • Are dedicated to the organization’s mission, with support and intentionality
  • Exude reliability, honesty, integrity, diligence and perseverance
  • Honor organizational policies, rules and practices with the structure they provide
  • Are detail-oriented, with a clear understanding of how things work
  • Have few ego issues, seeking every opportunity to excel
  • Are terrific teachers who help others learn and improve

But when taken to extremes, these traits create dissent, employee dissatisfaction and turnover. When leaders prioritize outcomes over people, employee morale and a leader’s legacy suffer. On the negative end of the spectrum, perfectionistic leaders:

  • Make goals seem more critical than necessary
  • Pressure themselves into doing better and continually need more from their people
  • Often micromanage or control projects to ensure their standards prevail
  • Are so focused on methods and results that they fail to notice (or deal with) their detrimental effects on employees
  • Take on too much work, without delegating, believing others will achieve lesser results
  • Are unwilling to develop other leaders or successors, believing no one can lead the organization or replace them
  • Hold unrealistic expectations of excellence that people can never meet
  • Can be tough to please, as results are seldom good enough
  • Engage in black-and-white thinking, leading them to reach rash or unfair conclusions
  • Believe their way is the best way—in short, the only way
  • Criticize those who disagree with their assessments and solutions

Perfectionistic leaders exhibit widely observable behavioral patterns. They have a precise manner, with a keen attention to detail, punctuality, specificity and process. Tunnel vision causes them to adhere strongly to established policies and procedures. They show displeasure with those whose priorities differ, and they instruct their people to follow “the plan.”  They issue compulsively frequent reminders and criticisms.

Perfectionists assign people to one of two categories: those who support their values and methods vs. those who dissent. Their attempts to teach or make suggestions are largely firm or critical. When these leaders receive negative feedback, they become judgmental and biased.

If some of these behaviors sound uncomfortably familiar to you, perfectionism may be jeopardizing your organization and career. Your people need room to breathe and the freedom to contribute with the skills they have. There’s almost always more than one way to achieve a goal. Perfection, as desirable as it may seem, is deceptively dangerous.

What do you think? Are you pursuing perfection? You can call me at 704-827-4474; let’s talk. And as always, I can be reached here, or on LinkedIn.

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