You can’t be perfect, but you can be better.

Every organization has “ideal” standards to which their top leader is held. Often enough, as CEO, your persona is imbued by others with capabilities that exceed the threshold of realism. Expectations for leadership success can run high, sometimes impossibly so.

Nonetheless, because this tribal totem-shaping does occur, how your talents and traits are projected and your potential realized are of importance. Of course, the criteria comprising this paragon are related to how success is defined and who is doing the judging. In practice, it’s pretty difficult to find a set of definitions that fits the bill for all concerned within the organization. And since it doesn’t work to bend yourself into a pretzel in an attempt to meet everyone’s expectations –some of which conflict with each other– it’s better to discern that which is most crucial and cover that territory instead.

If there was a “best practices” list of winning characteristics to consider excelling at, it would likely include things such as:

  • Getting the right things accomplished through the people you lead.
  • Being a visionary.
  • Making rain.
  • Recognizing your power and the effect you have on others.
  • Executive presence – which, depending on whom you ask, means something different.
  • Connecting with people and building a network of relationships, an essential outcome of what is often referred to as social intelligence.
  • Being passionate about your work.
  • Promoting innovation.
  • Making sure the ratio of Likeability / Ticking People Off is in the right balance.
    And the list goes on…

Outside of the organization, your performance as a leader will be judged by some of these criteria as well as how well the organization is accomplishing its mission and serving its clients or customers. As CEO, you do your best to influence the personal brand you create in the marketplace. One thing you know for sure… your successes will be matched with some bumps in the road.

Now, for a moment, let’s turn the tables and ask, “Of all the people you have reported to throughout your career, how many have you liked working for? How many were model bosses?” In all likelihood, the percentage of “Wow’s” are smaller than the percentage of disappointments.

Why is this? Positions, organizations and economic trends are constantly changing… and, leaders, because they are all human beings, bring with them their natural flaws. Leaders live within a spectrum of circumstances that affect the way they respond to challenges and take account of their shortcomings. Even those characteristics the field of psychology refers to as foundational “traits” are subject to some degree of “play” and adaptation.

Where “Myth” Enters the Picture. People in organizations often act as if our leaders should have a track record of unending success and we experience jolts when leaders make mistakes and let them down. Myths are false notions we uncritically adopt in order to simplify our view of how things “should” be and to explain cause and effect. In the business world, the myth of perfection may take hold among followers that over-idealize a leader’s strengths and wisdom, and downplay their faults. CEO’s often have the additional burden of being expected to be fair. Tough decisions sometimes result in consequences that impact people differently and that are at odds with their expectations. On all accounts, it is your responsibility to manage this. Leaders can be highly respected without putting themselves in a position to live up to an image that cannot be sustained.

The Trap of Perfectionistic Thinking. Even experienced leaders may find themselves doing this! Perfectionistic thinking is powerful and often invisible. Such thinking leads to unrealistic goals, stress reactions, denial and other cognitive distortions. Furthermore, it plays into the CEO mythology. Here are some examples:

  • “I better know what I’m talking about at all times so I can maintain credibility as the brightest person in the room.”  
  • “We’ll have to keep interviewing more people, no matter how long it takes. We must find the absolute best person.”
  • “My team better not make mistakes on this initiative. If they do there will be hell to pay.” 
  • “I need to attend all these meetings to understand what’s going on – even if I don’t have the time.”
  •  “This issue is too important! I need more information and meetings.” (in the pursuit of complete knowledge before making a decision)

Have you ever bought into a myth about yourself? How have you discerned how others view you? Looking into the leadership mirror is hard. The antidote to perfectionism includes self-knowledge, becoming comfortable with what is “excellent enough,” and gracious acceptance of feedback. In addition to standard leadership development pursuits, such as executive coaching, you can go to a trusted advisor, a board member, or your own executive team and ask some questions about what you are doing well and what needs to improve. These resources can serve as a mirror and reality check. The more frequently they share their perspective, the better. Of course, this requires a certain level of comfort and trust.

Similar to parenting, skiing and playing wonderful music, the best leaders are constant learners who are open to developing what is most critical to operating as effectively as possible. This is very different from seeking perfection.

What is the best you can offer? Perhaps some of the following may fit the bill:

  • Aspire to be offer the best you can based on what stakeholders within and external to the organization require.
  • Be aware of your blind spots and manage them with humility.
  • Bring out the best in the people around you by letting them know they are valued and why.
  • Be generous with your time and knowledge so that you give something back and constantly build a legacy that others can benefit from for years to come.
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