I wanted so desperately to be a great leader.

I was 27 years old, leading a team of twenty people in a fast-growing start-up and I was responsible for about $12,000,000. Only two years prior, I led a team of exactly one (myself). Now, I was in over my head. The pressure was getting to me…and it showed.

The problem with perfectionist leaders
Real leaders make the most mistakes. They break the most stuff. They are not perfect. (Tweet That) | Share this Graphic on Pinterest | Share on Facebook

I wanted to be a great leader because in my 27 year old mind, that meant two things:

  • More money
  • More prestige

But I also wanted something deeper, something less tangible than dollar bills or a write-up in the local paper and a nicer office.

I wanted to be seen as the one with all the answers. I wanted to be seen as the problem-solver. If I am being 100% honest, I wanted to be seen as…perfect.

The problem with perfection

That’s where my problems began. Perfection, or more accurately maintaining the illusion of perfection, is a 24/7 job. It required constant attention, all of my energy, and a commitment to avoiding all things risky. It required me to avoid failure at all costs…or to cover it up well if I did mess up.

In short, it consumed me.

Bonus Content: Are you trying too hard to be or seem perfect? I created a free worksheet for you called There’s No Such Thing as Perfect Leaders: 9 Signs You are Trying too Hard to Seem Perfect and What to do About Them. Look for it at the end of this post or Click Here to Get it Now!

I focused less on growing the business and more on maintaining that illusion. I focused less on being accurate with my answers and more on seeming to have them all. I cared less about what was right for the company and more about me appearing to be right.

A few words come to mind when describing this period of my life (which still rears its ugly head from time to time):

  • Self-centered
  • Narcissistic
  • Delusional

Harsh, but true.

I was being all of those things.

Giving up the illusion

Years later, I came across a quote from Henry Ford that defined the one thing every great leader has in common.

Those who never make mistakes work for those of us who do.

My desire to seem perfect was killing any chance I had to be a great leader. It stripped away my ability to see real problems as real opportunities. It stifled the spirit of adventure I once had when we started the company. It killed the childlike fascination I once had with trying new things, seeking better ways to do business, and doing stupid things…because sometimes stupid ends up being incredibly smart.

I was unwilling to make mistakes to protect an illusion. I was afraid of being exposed. The myth I created in my mind drove me, not what was best for the company.

But the truth is that the real leaders are the ones who make the mistakes. They break the most stuff. They set the most labs on fire. They crash the most planes.

They have the most good ideas because they have the most ideas, period. A lot of them, often most of them, don’t work.

And yet they lead well. Because they are the few that are willing to put their reputations on the line. They are willing to be wrong and to give up the illusion of perfection. Those who don’t, as Ford said, end up working for those who do.

So how do you know if you are trying too hard to seem perfect? This list is a good place to start. Then make sure to get your free bonus to learn how to fix them.

9 signs you are trying too hard to seem perfect

1. You feel a need to answer every question.

Even if it means you make up the answer.

2. Your first reaction to a mistake is to cover it up.

Even if you learned a powerful lesson that will help others.

3. You shoot down others’ ideas quickly.

Because trying their ideas could backfire. And, why didn’t you think of that?

4. You report only positive news to your boss or team.

Even if solving a major problem is as simple as asking for help.

5. You never ask for help.

Because to do so would be an admission of helplessness in your eyes.

6. You assess risk in terms of damage to your reputation.

Not in terms of damage to the organization or others.

7. You see every criticism as a personal attack.

Your fragile self-image cannot withstand any critique. You must defend yourself.

8. You take pleasure in others’ failures.

The less perfect someone else is, the more perfect you are.

9. Guilt, shame, and fear consume you.

Ultimately, you will make mistakes. When you do, the guilt and shame overwhelm you. And fear of the next mistake paralyzes you.

What about you?

If any of these nine signs fit you, take solace in Henry Ford’s words.

Stop trying to be perfect, or seem perfect. On the other side of this dark place is a freedom that will bring you joy, peace, and fulfillment in your business and life.

Have you ever tried too hard to be or seem perfect? What were the results?

no perfect leaders

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13 thoughts on “The Dangers of Leaders Who Try to be Perfect

  1. Heidi Bender says:

    i’ve learned how much faster/easier it can be to ask for help. Usually someone else on my team (I am not the team leader) will have the answer and save me a bunch of time and stress and rabbit holes.

  2. Dan Erickson says:

    It’s the misplaced note that perfects the song. It’s the splashed paint that perfects the painting. Imperfection is perfect enough.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Well said Dan. I might steal that 🙂

  3. Steve Daniel says:

    My dad once told me that, “the imperfections you have are what makes you who you are. Those are the only thing that you can take total ownership of.” I realized later that no one else would take credit for your imperfections, but they certainly will jump on your successes.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Your dad was clearly a VERY wise man Steve. I love that line.

  4. Jana Botkin says:

    It is much more fun and less burden to ask for help, admit (and laugh at) mistakes, consider new ideas from other sources, share the weight of negative news, and just be real and honest.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Once you learn that it is, it sure is…but sometimes people (me) are stubborn 🙂

      1. Jana Botkin says:

        Well, I do have about 20 years on you, and I didn’t have anywhere near the responsibilities that you had or have. . . so I have actually been quite a slow learner. 😎

  5. Zechariah Newman says:

    Right on Matt. I cycle on and off:) Being real and authentic as a leader. Then slowly masking up:( Then I get to tired and the cycle starts again. I am stubborn….and a slow learner:)

  6. Dan Black says:

    Those who try or seem perfect are often fulling themselves. I strive to be a better leader not a perfect one. Great read Matt!

  7. Robert Kennedy III says:

    Great read. I wrote an article called The Imperfect Leader for a magazine recently. But I wish I had written yours, lol. Great stuff. I especially loved the 9 signs at the bottom.

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