NextGen Know-How: Perfectionism Can Be Destructive to Your Leadership

manicured hand trimming grass to be perfectly even with scissors
Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CSP, CPCC Photo
Executive Coach/Consultant
Envision Excellence LLC

4 minutes

Here are six ways to keep yourself grounded and maintain a healthy mindset around striving for excellence.

In one of my recent workshops, an executive shared her struggle with perfectionism in leadership. She talked about the standards she places on herself and her feelings of inadequacy if she makes one mistake—mulling it over for days as the uneasiness builds.

Her story resonated with me, as someone who struggled with perfectionism earlier in my career. I used to waste a great deal of time and energy striving to create the perfect business plan, the perfect presentation or even the perfect gourmet dinner for friends. The list goes on! 

So why do so many high-achieving, successful leaders beat themselves up over small, inconsequential mistakes?  

Why Are We Striving So Hard to Be ‘Perfect?’ 

The truth is, people who are challenged by perfectionism usually don’t think they’re perfect. More often, they fear what people will think if they find out how imperfect they really are.  

Many perfectionists struggle with living up to their own internal standards of perfection that they perceive will help them to be accepted and appreciated by others. 

Here’s the challenge with perfectionism: While we may convince ourselves that we just have high standards, this approach to work and life can be unhealthy and get in the way of effective leadership.  

If we strive to be perfect, we will never live up to our own unattainable standards and will very often feel disappointed in ourselves, which can crush our confidence. If we lack confidence, we will often avoid stepping out of our comfort zone, which is how we grow and develop as human beings. In addition, leaders who expect perfection from their teams often display unhealthy leadership behaviors like micromanaging, controlling behavior and criticism.  

The bottom line: Perfectionism breeds disappointment—in ourselves and others—and it’s not a healthy way to lead.

There is no place for perfectionism in leadership.

A better approach is striving for excellence.

 Reframing our internal and external expectations toward excellence is a healthy way to lead ourselves and others. With excellence at the forefront, the focus is on self-improvement, support and achieving goals rather than criticism, disappointment and unrealistic expectations.  

While shifting from perfectionism to focusing on excellence won’t happen overnight, here are six ways to keep yourself grounded and your mindset healthy.

6 Ways to Release Perfectionism

1. Take regular breaks. Schedule at least three ten-minute breaks a day to get out of your office and connect with people or go outdoors. Giving your brain a break brings clarity and focus and often gives you the mental space you need to reframe your tendencies toward perfectionism. (Avoid social media during these breaks, because research shows social media consumption can increase anxiety and be a source of comparison, thereby increasing the desire for perfection.) 

2. Delegate and trust. Perfectionists often feel they will be seen as successful leaders if they can do it all. The opposite is true. A good leader delegates tasks and projects so they can focus on the important, high-leverage areas that have the biggest impact on results. 

3. Develop your employees. The more time you take to develop your employees, the more opportunities you will have to delegate work to them and free up your time for the most important strategic projects. Not only do you build your bench strength by prioritizing development, but you’ll also give your team members opportunities to grow and learn new skills.  

4. Pare down your daily to-do list. At the end of each day, pick one or two important tasks or projects that are essential to complete the next day. Many leaders focus more on activities than results because it feels good to check things off the to-do list, even if they aren’t the most important results that will lead to success. 

Instead of focusing on a long to-do list, start your day by focusing on those two most important tasks or projects that are the best use of your time and can’t be delegated. 

5. Focus on being, not just doing. Perfectionists usually focus on accomplishments and tend to neglect downtime. Designate downtime every day when you shut off everything and leave the demands behind. Create boundaries so you have time to rest and rejuvenate, so you can work at your best every day.  

6. Beware of compare! One thing that can fuel self-criticism is comparing ourselves to others. Whether it’s a colleague’s recent promotion or your best friend’s new job, comparing yourself to others breeds disappointment and self-doubt.

Awareness is the first step toward reducing anxiety around perfectionism. Perfectionism won’t be overcome instantly. By reframing your mindset and focusing on excellence, you can build a healthy sense of self-acceptance, growth, and achievement for yourself and your team.  

Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CSP, CPCC, is a certified executive coach, leadership consultant and founder of CUES Supplier member Envision Excellence LLC in the Washington, D.C., area. Her mission is to create exceptional cultures by teaching leaders how to be exceptional. Maddalena facilitates management and executive training programs and team-building sessions and speaks at leadership events. Prior to starting her business, she was an HR executive at a $450 million credit union. Contact her at 240.605.7940 or

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