Leadership: The Pitfalls of Waiting for Perfection

by Alli Polin on February 22, 2013

Great Leaders Don't Demand Perfection

Leaders: We’re going to be waiting an awfully long time if we’re waiting for perfect.  As a fellow perfectionist, I know that I am always tempted to do more or practice more, or add more or analyze more.  Unfortunately, the drive for “more” is because I’m not always aware where the lines are drawn between good / great / exceptional.  A lot of effort goes into chasing the lines instead of being grounded in the desired outcome.

I’m not suggesting that we perfectionists need to go with mediocre, or even good, but we DO need to let go of perfect every once in a while.

When leaders are waiting for perfect:

  • Revision cycles become endless loops
  • Vision gets obscured by the details
  • Opportunities are missed
  • Scope creep becomes a daily battle
  • Analysis paralysis is a way of life
  • People feel micromanaged, undervalued, and that they can never meet expectations
  • Their personal plate of work gets filled to overflowing because they refuse to give up control or delegate critical tasks 

You may be thinking, what’s wrong with high expectations??  Nothing!  Just don’t confuse high expectations with waiting for perfect.

When YOU are waiting for perfect:

  • Risks are limited because “I’m not ready” or “They’re not ready.”
  • Fear of failure stops any chance for innovation
  • Failure is not accepted and explored for learning but instead a source of self-flagellation
  • You work to the point of exhaustion because perfect is always around the corner if only you push yourself hard enough to get there 

The big secret is that perfection isn’t real-life or real-leadership.  All of those beautiful models in magazines? Photoshop.  Your favorite reality TV show?  Semi-scripted.  The charts that show immediate amazing results from new operations? Data selection.

If you are a recovering (or active!) perfectionist, how do you adjust the bar to GREAT or FANTASTIC without shooting for flawless?  Start here:

Consider the cost / benefit of the time investment.

I’ll bet that you don’t wing your work but instead plan it to increase the likelihood of success.  Clients rarely say “oh, just let me know how much time you spent and I’ll pay you.”  Typically, you estimate and then agree on fee-for-service.  Overruns and scope creep can turn the perfect work plan into little more than a decoration hanging on the wall of your office.   It can also cost you, and your client real money.  Great work can and should be delivered on time and in budget.   Satisfaction goes down the more hours that are burned unnecessarily.  Even exceptional work loses its luster when the price is five times the estimate.

Leaders are human, not automatons. 

What happens if you’re not perfect?  Does the world explode?  Does your team tackle you and kick you to the corner?  Does your Mom hold a press conference and publically disown you?  Give yourself permission to do your best on every single task but not worry if your best is absolute “knock it out of the park” best or just the best you can do today.  Be a role model for your team by using your judgment and your ability to separate the noise from what matters most.

Those bags under your eyes are stopping you from seeing reality.

I know that you don’t want to hear this but it’s OK to leave some things alone when they are good enough.  Not everything needs to be the modern leader’s equivalent of the Sistine Chapel.  We all have limits and hopefully we all have friends and family and people who care about us and want to see us once in a while.  You’ll never reach perfection, and enjoy it, if you’re too exhausted to see that you’re already there.  You need to decide for yourself when can you feel good about leaving, refreshing and recharging so you can do your best work tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that too.

Perfect is usually a mask for uncertainty and lack of confidence.  Embrace your confidence, competence and creativity and never forget: High standards are achievable, impossibly high standards are not.

How have you managed the balance between your desire to be and deliver perfect and the reality that all you can ever do is you best?

(Photo credit)

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Dan Forbes February 22, 2013 at 7:01 am

Alli, I wish you HADN’T written this article. As someone who tends to be a perfectionist it’s painful to be self-aware of this “weakness.” Your written words, “Perfect is usually a mask for uncertainty and lack of confidence,” make me cringe. Could my perfectionism stem from uncertainty and lack of confidence? I’m going to need some time to reflect on all this. OUCH.


alli February 22, 2013 at 7:04 am

I’m right there with you, Dan. When I spend hours on something and it turns into days I try to stop and ask myself what’s really going on. Is the work I’ve completed to date really so terrible that I need to edit and build on it forever or am I afraid of what the response will be when I say it’s done and other people “judge” my effort.

Glad to know I’m not alone! 🙂

Thanks, Dan!


Amber-Lee Dibble February 22, 2013 at 3:48 pm

Wow, I sure am glad Dan got here before I did! LOL

Yes, I am cringing too.. (You are a Mom, aren’t you? Most often, Moms are the ones that can say something so sweetly…all the while smacking you upside the head!)

It seems the longer I am a leadership position the more sure I am that I do not know enough! (sigh)

I have LOTS of wall decorations…. I feel as if the part of “…and enjoy it…” was aimed directly at me. I know that it is my own subconscious telling me to get outside…

I have witnessed and experienced the “wait” … but I have also read what I have worked on and published and instantly found what I could have improved, upon just one more reading. The puzzle for me is that I may have one chance, each time, to touch someone with the point I am trying to make for them… and if it isn’t “exactly right” (sigh, I know it may never be with that thought…) I may miss that opportunity.

As a leader and as simply myself, I am a firm believer in “don’t give up and don’t quit” so I know that I will continue. But if I don’t put that message across to others, they may, and in that alone, we may all miss something important that could come from the one I lost…

Lots to think about this morning. Thank you, Alli. I am so glad you are part of my life now.


alli February 22, 2013 at 7:02 pm

Amber-Lee – YOU are an inspiration. The balance between planning and doing are so clear with what you do… and the stakes are incredibly high when your plan isn’t as strong as it can possibly be.

In writing, it’s funny. Just like you I proofread several times (ok, a lot) but even the last time I can find an extra space to remove or something else I wish I had said or something I’d like to add. It can be a battle to hit publish knowing that I have more to give.

What I’ve realized from writing and coaching is that nobody is harder on me than I am. The question is: has our work touched the heart and mind of someone else even if it’s not everyone else. It’s not only about the take-off, but how it lands.

And yes, I am a parent too and you’re right! WOW. 🙂 I think my kids would be happy to have me leave perfect permanently at the door – a life in progress is so much more fun!

Thanks for adding so much to the conversation –



Michelle Mazur February 23, 2013 at 12:10 pm

I worked at an organization that wanted everything to be “perfect”. Deliverables would go through endless revisions that delayed the project and did nothing to make the deliverable better. (However, they liked to pay themselves on the back and think that it did). Sometimes you have to take the leap and ship.


alli February 23, 2013 at 8:05 pm

YES! “Sometimes you have to take the leap and ship.”

I think I must have worked there too 😉 Revision after revision was ultimately shifting vs improving. The end result is never perfect… even if it is our absolute best effort. So many of those revision rounds ended with a sigh and a “just send it.”

Pefectionism is a trap – not the bridge to excellence.

Thanks so much for adding your experience to the mix, Michelle! Great example!


Alice Chan February 23, 2013 at 7:53 pm

One of my favorite authors, Robert Holden, says that perfectionism is actually a wound, not a strength. When I first read that, I went, “ouch” inside. It’s true, though, that needing to be perfect comes from a fear of not being accepted. The best advice I once got was that, what I thought was not good enough is pretty excellent for others. Learning to leave things alone as good enough is really a conscious practice. Thank you for writing about this!


alli February 23, 2013 at 8:00 pm

Alice –

Eye opening: “perfectionism is a wound, not a strength.” It is truly anchored more in our fears of not being enough. It’s funny, I wrote a post on the idea of “Just Enough.” When we have enough, we don’t need more. I’ve held myself back from publishing it for my own fear that people won’t “get it.” Too many people feel that good or great is settling but when it is the best we can do or give, that’s what matters.

Thanks for pointing out how this needs to be a conscious practice. Your comments always add color to the conversation. Thanks!


Redge February 26, 2013 at 7:18 am

Hi Alli! This post sure strikes a chord as I too am a perfectionist. You bring up some excellent points here as have those who have already commented.

I’m not a “wait for it” type of individual and as a leader learned early on to understand and appreciate the need for balance, fit, and function. Perhaps I’m part perfectionist, part realist, and part optimist. I thrive on knowing there is always a better way and more than one solution.

I see perfectionism as a journey where each deliverable is a work in progress towards “better”. I can be mildly discontent with the realization that this is not the last time and there is almost always a next time.

I think we all “suffer” from some degree of perfectionism, we simply define it differently to mask it’s existence: high vs low “quality”, high vs low “performance”, “ultimate” vs bad experience.

Thanks for sharing.


alli February 26, 2013 at 7:33 am

Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments, Redge! You’ve added something important to the conversation. We may not want to say we’re shooting for perfect but there are lots of other words we use to define the behavior.

I’m just like you! I am the one who says just because it works this way, what’s another way? Some of the perfectionists in the bunch would ask if we know that we can get things just right, why change? Part of my perfectionist tendency is to continue searching.

Pretty awesome to be “part perfectionist, part realist, and part optimist”

Thanks again for adding to the conversation!


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