Take Your Personal Leadership Beyond the Illusion of Perfection

by Alli Polin on February 10, 2015

be a leader who embraces the truth

I tried not to stare, but I was intrigued. I was on the beach in Fiji, mesmerized by the sparkling clear blue water, and on either side of me there were young women taking endless selfies. Self absorbed to the max, determined to get just the right photo to post as evidence of their absolute perfection. Kind of reminded me of what I often see in the corporate world where there is an intense fear of taking leadership beyond the illusion of perfection. As if telling the whole truth could potentially get you fired or eliminate any possibility of success. 

Here’s the scene on the beach:

To my left, three friends were snapping pictures of each other in impossible positions to carefully highlight their, um, best assets.  It was more like a Sports Illustrated swimsuit photo shoot than hangout time with friends at the beach. In fact, as soon as the last pic was shot, they packed up and left the beach for the day.  Guess they only wanted the pictures, not the experience of actually being present in Fiji.

To my right a young woman spent over an hour with her selfie arm with focused determination to get the perfect shot. 

I could picture the steady stream on Instagram with playful comments like: Look at me!  Super hot!  Yet, all I could see was how much work each photo took and that they were all carefully contrived. 

Walk with me to another scene… no beach, this time it’s a leadership team creating a glamour shot out of not so beautiful data.

Before accepting a position as VP in a new division, I reviewed all of the charts and highlights from the previous leadership team. Their story was a great one highlighting significant successes in the early stages of a radical innovation program. Every presentation, PowerPoint chart and conference call emphasized the  elegance and beauty of the new model. I wanted in ~ this was not only amazing, but the wave of the future. 

You know that saying about something that looks too good to be true?  It probably is. In this case, they cherry picked the data to tell the most compelling story possible and to keep funding flowing. Unfortunately, the rest of the data was far less pretty. 

Truthfully, if I had seen the whole picture, I would still have said yes to the offer but also with adjusted expectations and plans. 

My challenge was to have the courage to change the picture, move away from the glamour shot and show the beauty in the truth. It was in there, just a little harder to spot.

4 Tips to Take Your Leadership Beyond the Illusion of Perfection

1) Remember, just because a shot isn’t a glam shot, it doesn’t mean that reality can’t still be pretty.

The girls on the beach were super cute and didn’t need to sex it up to take a good picture. 

In my organization, the full dataset revealed some early successes, yes, but also places to dig in, shift and change. 

In both cases the glam shot was misleading and more about telling a one sided story than sharing reality.

TIP: Show the whole you and the full story. Polished perfection is unattainable. Be real and people will follow.

2) Stop being so superficial – it’s not attractive.

Everyone likes a photo where they look good (and a pie chart that shows amazing results).  Still, when you work that hard to manipulate the data you have to wonder, what are you really hiding?

TIP: Eventually, people will look beyond skin deep. Have the courage to step forward, flaws and all, to cultivate respect and trust based on truth. Don’t wait for someone else to pull back the curtain, be a leader. 

3) Fear you’ll be judged if it’s less than gorgeous?

Nobody is perfect. Nobody. Only showing perfection is hiding from reality, not an alternative version of the truth.  If others judge you or your success, it’s up to you to cultivate the self-confidence and self-belief – not crumble because you’re being judged.

TIP:

Honestly, every day someone is judging what you’re doing, why and how you look while you’re doing it. Who cares? Be your best and do your best embracing your flaws and your struggles along the way. 

4) If you only see the glamour shots, as a leader, you get the wrong impression. 

Think about how you react when your team brings you challenges in addition to successes.  Have you created a culture of “tell me the good stuff?” It’s impossible to help make things go right when everyone is showing you that they’re already perfect. 

TIP:

Encourage your team to share the big picture and not just the most flattering one they can muster. Be supportive and not punitive. 

Embrace your flaws, your challenges and your not so flattering photos.  They will reveal something far more interesting and real than photoshopped, manipulated, insta-glam perfection ever will. 

Messy is human.  Polished perfection is just who someone wants you to see. Be You. 

What’s your advice?

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Are you ready to find clarity and take courageous action?  You don’t have to worry about being perfect anymore.  This eCourse is for you: Get Unstuck and Choose to Move

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Chery Gegelman February 10, 2015 at 6:14 am

Ahh Alli! So many things to love about this post!
1. Great story, powerful analogy!
2. It resonates – Yep I’ve wished for perfection. (Been very willing to share my humanness to help others in need, but struggled to share that I’m not perfect with people I wanted to impress. But guess what – I think they already knew.)
3. Your touch on manipulation – hits a passion of mine.
4. And the entire post reminded me of a beautiful, brilliant and witty co-worker that looked like Barbie. She told me a story of working hard with her team to emphasize that anything that came out of their office had to be “PRISTINE.” Then one night she wrote an email in a hurry and did a quick spell check. The word inconvenience was changed to incontinence and she missed it. The email was sent, and the next morning she arrived to find a box of Depends on her desk! (The best part was that she shared that story for years – displaying her humanness and her sense of humor!)

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Alli Polin February 10, 2015 at 6:18 am

What a story!!!

I think it’s those times we think we’re on top of the world, infallible, that the inevitable happens. I love how that story had such a human response too. They didn’t mock her behind her back but playfully engaged with her humanity (and less than perfect moment).

Thanks a ton for sharing, Chery!

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Carl February 10, 2015 at 6:46 am

Alli, great story and metaphor, so easy to get caught up in what we think looks important and miss the true value, whether in the data or in people –
(though I really hoped there would be a shot of the girls on the beach) heh! just kidding

br,
Carl

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Alli Polin February 10, 2015 at 6:51 am

Ha! They were nuts with the poses. I’ll never forget them.

Looks can be deceiving and we work so darn hard to keep up appearances…. There’s something to be said for enjoying life, being your best and doing your best…. good stuff will follow.

Thanks so much, Carl!

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Jon Mertz February 10, 2015 at 7:21 am

Alli,

Ignoring reality or dressing it up to be something it isn’t eventually catches up with you. One of the most attractive things we can do is to embrace our reality with humility, a sense of purpose, solving problems in meaningful ways, and always learning how to do things in a better way next time. There is beauty in truth, and we need to embrace it fully!

Great points! Thank you.

Jon

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Alli Polin February 11, 2015 at 6:16 am

Great addition, Jon. Humility is essential to living sharing the truth. We’re not afraid of how it will look to others, no need to over inflate or pretend…

Grateful!

~ Alli

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Karin Hurt February 10, 2015 at 8:43 am

Excellent! We saw the same scene in Punta Cana. It was CRAZY. The crazy part is that I really think some leaders think their team can’t see through all this. We can. To build deep trust, be real. Show you are and tell the whole story. Otherwise, your team will glam it up for you and the no one will know what’s really going on.

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Alli Polin February 11, 2015 at 6:18 am

Crazy is definitely the best way to describe it!

It’s all about playing the game and at some point, it catches up with you. Hopefully most of the leaders out there really do see through the players and recognize those that are truly making a difference. Hopefully…

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Terri Klass February 10, 2015 at 9:03 am

Outstanding post, Alli! Love how you connected the self-absorbed, fake selfie with leaders who are fearful of showing all their sides. When we don’t reveal our truths, we cannot forge meaningful relationships.

I once worked with a leader who was somewhat of a pollyanna. She never wanted to share with me what was really going on with her team. Then I worked with her team and learned how they really felt about her and the challenges they were facing. Until we can lead authentically and take off our masks, we can’t cultivate high performing teams or strong work relationships.

Thanks Alli for a great conversation! Love the image too!

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Alli Polin February 11, 2015 at 6:21 am

Your story is a great one, Terri. Thanks for sharing it here. I’ve seen far too many teams withhold information from their leader or worse, assume that the leader can’t or won’t help if they knew the truth. The road to success is often a messy one and anyone that thinks that it’s all roses and unicorns is out of touch from reality and definitely not leading from strength or truth.

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John Bennett February 10, 2015 at 9:29 am

Quoting: “Polished perfection is unattainable. Be real and people will follow.” Perfection can be the goal – as long as everyone understands goals are targets, resulting objectives are the real outcomes sought. Two scenes:

(1) Think of the family about to visit a national park 2,000 miles away. They go onto their favorite map app to get the route, plan stops for breaks, food, and sleeping. They decide on what to take, packing bags that will all fit in the car. In short, they prepare / plan the perfect trip! Planning is indeed important; but will the trip go as planned? Of course not! Things will come up – good and bad – that will require our attention, our assessment and revision … For you mathematicians, what’s the probability any amount of preparation will result in things going as planned?

(2) Consider the scene: Two contestants (one a scientist / mathematician and one an engineer / entrepreneur) at one end of a long hallway – with lots of officials and observers there as well of course. At the other end of the hallway is a set-up of the contestants favorite chilled beverage and assorted snacks. The instructions are these: contestants can go half the distance to the target every five minutes and first one to the target gets the items to share with their friends. After the starting signal, the scientist / mathematician turns and walks away, knowing she / he will NEVER reach the target; while the engineer / entrepreneur starts down the hallway, knowing she / he will get close enough!!!

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Alli Polin February 11, 2015 at 6:25 am

You raise an important point, John. (and great stories too!) Perfection may be the goal but it’s also okay, and often a very rich experience, when we fall short.

The challenge is when we mix up who we are with a vision of perfection. We start to think that if we don’t make it 100% there 100% of the time we’ve failed so we put on an elaborate show. The prob is that most people ultimately realize it’s all a performance and trust, leadership and relationships are often eroded beyond repair.

Thank you for forwarding the conversation!

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Joy Guthrie February 10, 2015 at 10:29 am

Great story Alli. It seems that your vacation turned out to be an educational trip after all. Thank you for sharing.

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Alli Polin February 11, 2015 at 6:27 am

Thanks, Joy! Vacation had a bunch of aha moments. Relaxation, fun and new insights and ideas… just the kind of vacation I like 🙂

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Samantha Hall February 10, 2015 at 11:14 am

Great post Alli.

I’ll take an imperfect but honesty leader any day of the week over the fake and ‘lets’ pretend everything is perfect’ ones. Besides, it’s a recipe for disaster if truth tellers team up with leaders who can’t handle the truth. No matter how ‘nice’ you try to deliver it. (and that varies per person anyway!) Some just want you to ‘get to the point’. Others need to have the truth laced in the most delicate manner.

Different strokes for different folks.

My daughter loves selfies and I don’t understand it! It wasn’t anything I had to deal with growing up ‘ back in the day’! No cell phones or digital cameras! haha

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Alli Polin February 11, 2015 at 6:32 am

My kids take selfies too and the only time I do it is when I’m with them!

I have learned to deliver the truth with kindness and love over the years. Truly, any behavior, soft or hard can land as intended if you fully know that the other person is naturally creative, resourceful and whole.

That being said…

I prefer the honest leader too. I once worked for someone that was always encouraging our team, told us how he was on our side 100%, asked what roadblocks they could help remove… on and on. In the end, they told their second in command to watch our team like a hawk, to introduce new initiatives and ultimately fired the SVP that he “was totally behind.”

Appearances were definitely deceiving and it’s a lesson I’ll never forget.

Thanks for your comment, Samantha!

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LaRae Quy February 10, 2015 at 11:40 am

I chuckled as you talked about those bathing beauties and their selfies 🙂

My favorite is this: “Stop being so superficial – it’s not attractive.” I do think this is one of the few benefits of growing older—the ability to grow deeper roots and appreciate the people we truly are, not who we think we want to be.

This takes maturity—and sometimes it does not come with age; age just shows up by itself, but with a little persistence and nudging we can all grow into the person we’ve always meant to be…

Great post, Alli!

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Alli Polin February 11, 2015 at 6:34 am

I’ve definitely mellowed with age and I think that the most growth happened when I stopped looking at what everyone else was doing and looked within. I hired a coach, focused on personal development and stopped waiting to be “that person” I was already there in me, and I just needed the courage to be me.

Thanks for your comment, LaRae!

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Tom Rhodes February 11, 2015 at 8:42 am

Alli,

Just yesterday I heard one of our Managers tell an associate they wanted an area to be perfect for the next day. It made me cringe thinking how much time would be waisted looking for the illusion of perfect. Perfection is one of the top time wasters we have. I Love the concept of working to move from good to great in whatever your role may be at the same time I would much rather have an honest best effort with real results than a pretty picture painted over a cracked canvas.
Leadership is not about perfect anymore than life is about being perfect. Give yourself and others a real best you. They follow you because you are giving them the respect of honesty. That matters much more to people than your attempts at perfect.

Thanks for all you do.

Tom

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Alli Polin February 13, 2015 at 5:22 am

Wise words from you, Tom.

Also, I agree, respect for self and others, honesty and integrity are critical. Perfection is something that leaders everywhere demand from their team but more often than not, do not deliver it themselves… then again, it’s impossible to be perfect 24/7. The best we can do is to be human.

Thanks for sharing that story. Really honest and real example of what happens in the world of work.

Thanks, Tom!

Alli

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Brian Smith February 11, 2015 at 3:51 pm

I gave up being perfect years ago Alli – Too big of a burden to carry. 🙂 Besides perfection is highly over rated. You just need to be good enough for you

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Alli Polin February 13, 2015 at 5:23 am

You are an in demand speaker, trainer and reformed control freak. I hope that means that organizations are starting to get the message about what works.

Grateful for your comment! Thanks, Brian!

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Cynthia Bazin February 13, 2015 at 7:31 pm

Ali! There you go again doing an AMAZING post! I absolutely love everything you talk about. And love the ‘click to tweet’ in your posts. AWESOME! 🙂

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Alli Polin February 13, 2015 at 7:59 pm

Thanks so much! Greatly appreciate your support, Cindy!

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Brenda Lee March 12, 2015 at 12:14 pm

Hey Alli,

I absolutely love this post. Like the cute lil girls taking numerous selfies to obtain that perfect photo, I find it happening as well in Corporate America. It bothers me that people would rather share “falsities” versus the “truths” just because they are less than perfect. That is what is wrong with society. I admire a product commercial that shows the truths, although the ASPCA commercials make me cry, they aren’t trying to sugar coat it to get what they want.

Inspiring post as always. Thank you Alli!

B

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