Are You A Perfectionistic Leader? 5 Powerful Success Tips

Perfectionistic Leaders, Executive Coaching, Leadership Development, Management TrainingCould you be a perfectionist? Do you determine your self-worth through your achievements? If you tend to identify with achievements such as winning trophies and awards, setting records, or being the very best, you might be a perfectionist.  A perfectionist may go to great lengths to try to protect his/her identity. Some even lose sleep and make themselves sick trying to maintain their sterling image. Here are some signs that you have perfectionism. Ask yourself if you show any of them:

  1. You set a goal for yourself, do it, and feel great! But, if you don’t do so great the next time, you feel awful. Your family and friends notice and try to reassure you. However, you become irritable and suspicious of their motives. Why are they praising you? You don’t feel worth it. Then along comes another goal, task, or project. You ace it and you’re feeling high again. This roller coaster of emotions is exhausting! You feel excited and competent when you do well, but rejected and ashamed when you don’t.


  1. You focus on the number of trophies you win and awards or accolades you receive instead of what you’re learning.


  1. You focus on your fear of failure. Let’s say you gave an awesome speech. Everybody comes up afterward and tells you that you were brilliant and inspiring. But, all you can think about is what you forgot to say. Rather than savor your success, you are already planning the next presentation, worrying about the things you must do to succeed.


  1. You dwell on the past, thinking: “If only I…” “Why didn’t I…?” “This wouldn’t have happened if I had…” You have a hard time letting things go. You dwell on mistakes relentlessly.


  1. When looking at your goals you haven’t met, you magnify the negatives so they appear much larger than they really are. But, when looking at those goals you have met, you minimize the positives so they appear insignificant.

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  1. Given a choice between sleeping and working, you work–even if it means drinking tons of coffee or energy drinks. Or, given the choice between going out with friends or working on developing a skill, you choose to pick up a book, watch a “TEDtalk” or seek another resource. You place your achievement goals before fun, friends, or your health.


  1. You are seldom satisfied with anything but the best. Perfection and nothing less. So you do the same thing again… and again… and again until you get it right. You may revise the same article over and over and over again, hating yourself because you’re so slow. You worry that others will know how hard you worked when you want it to appear effortless. The desire to be liked by others– people-pleasing–seems to protect your self-esteem. But, it also leads to performance anxiety.


  1. You are a procrastinator. You must get everything right, so any performance short of the best is a failure. This piles on undue pressure. To delay the possibility that you might not be perfect, you put things off. For example, a report is due Monday and it’s already Friday afternoon. Now you go into overdrive, pulling all-nighters and working furiously to get the job done. Of course, your quality suffers. But to a perfectionist, that’s okay. After all, how can you possibly do a perfect job if you just don’t have enough time? And you postpone starting a new project because each new beginning is a step on the path to possible failure.


  1. You lose opportunities because you don’t get things done on time. Networking opportunities, business income, and promotions escape you. Or, you may lose a job because you can’t let go of one project and move onto the next. You might even get so far behind that you finally give up.


  1. You have negative, dis-empowering thoughts that hold you back:
  • When you put off starting a project, you say to yourself, “If I don’t start, I can’t fail.” So you send/receive email, watch TV, surf the Internet, or clean the house – – anything to keep busy and avoid the work that really needs to be done.
  • When you postpone handing in a finished project, you say to yourself, “It’s sort of done, but it’s not good enough!” There is always just a little bit more that needs to be added or tweaked.
  • When you start so many projects that there isn’t enough time to complete any one of them, you say to yourself, “If only I didn’t have so much to do, I would do a great job!” Projects, tasks, and papers pile up until there’s no way to finish any of them, much less all of them.


If any of the above describes you, use the following success tips:

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  • Allow more time than you think a project will take. For example, if you think writing a report will take an hour, plan to or even three hours to do it
  • Set realistic goals, but don’t set them in stone. Stay flexible.
  • Break down big intimidating projects into smaller, more manageable steps.
  • Start something right now instead of waiting until you feel thoroughly prepared.
  • Make a conscious effort to realize that your report, project, or whatever does not need to be perfect. Accepting this fact helps eliminate the fear of failure.


Here’s an example of a leader I coached who struggled with perfectionism. Tim rose quickly through the ranks by political savvy, hard work, and knowledge. However, his leadership abilities were challenged when rising interest rates and heightened global competition forced him to close plants, downsize, and sell assets to improve the company’s bottom line. To Tim, failure of any kind represented death and disaster. He was determined to do whatever it took to succeed. Because Tim was so frightened of losing his job, he became distracted. The company contacted me. They warned me that everyone around him has ulcers. Initially, he was very charming and eager for help. He agreed to work with me on developing better leadership skills.


Raised as the only child of an alcoholic father and sexually frustrated, distant mother, Tim was the glue that kept the family together. His father abused his mother, and she, in turn, abused Tim. Executives often react to these types of emotional dynamics by immersing themselves in a highly demanding intellectual career. Although temporary, it is a successful defense against (and distraction from) the conflict and pain. School also provided him an escape from his chaotic home life. He had no power to fix his family dysfunction. But, doing well pleased his teachers, attracted them to him, and caused them to become substitute parents. They were the only healthy role models he had.


It is very common for executive overachievers to become stuck when the demands of a new role strain their defenses. Their strengths become over-used, then becoming weaknesses. In order to succeed, Tim had to do significant emotional intelligence work. However, most chief and senior executives do not have an opportunity in the work environment to do this emotional work. Vulnerability could endanger their current position and jeopardize their future. Consequently, these top leaders are often reluctant to seek help. Executive coaching may be the only way to process emotions.


Tim was a difficult task master: demanding, unyielding, distant, and hostile. Yet, when necessary, he was seductive and charming. He had no close colleagues. And, support staff typically sought psychotherapy to tolerate him. As expected, Tim was disrespectful toward females. He was very brutal when criticizing them. He often overreacted with rage to minor performance problems. Because he was competitive, defiant, argumentative, and confrontational, he often argued with his senior executives. He showed little ability to build or manage teams. He earned promotions with his brilliance, but lacked the ability to inspire and lead. Tim’s attitude toward his senior executives did not promote honesty and integrity among them. Because he was feared, they withheld valuable information from him. The business was declining, and the operations was in trouble. However, people were afraid to tell him. So he was the last to know.


We started out the coaching by completing a Success Inventory. This is an exercise in which clients look at the history of their successes from childhood to the present in order to understand their core strengths. Tim also took the StrengthsFinder assessment. We outlined his strengths and barriers as well as S.M.A.R.T. goals and the objectives toward meeting those goals. This was the basis of his individual leadership development action plan.


In addition to role-play practice of each leadership skill, we also used hypnosis. This allowed us to re-program his mind with positive, empowering, nurturing thoughts and beliefs.  These attitudes and assumptions replaced his negative, dis-empowering, abusive ones. Self-hypnosis allowed Tim to replace painful memories with relaxing, soothing imagery.


From the beginning, Tim resisted any intimacy with his wife. But as she became my ally in his coaching, he began to bond with her, which increased their intimacy. Meeting regularly with both of them dramatically improved their marriage. This, in turn, helped transform Tim’s leadership. To get attuned to his business problems, I encouraged him to develop listening and other communication skills. This uncovered performance barriers that had become hidden. As coaching continued, he began to think differently about himself, his team, and the business. Now, he wanted to mentor rather than annihilate his managers and supervisors. This allowed them to become true champions of his vision. Eager to adopt a similar approach at other levels in the corporation, they hired me to deliver a corporate wide coaching program involving several of their managers. Team building at the top levels of leadership also worked to transform the organization.

If you’re interested in overcoming your perfectionism, check out our audio-recording “Overcome Perfectionism” available on our website:

Overcome Perfectionism


Barbara Jordan, 
Author, Trainer/Facilitator, Executive Coach

LPI (Leadership Practices Inventory) Certified Coach

DISC Certified Behavior Analyst

AdvantEdge Success Coaching & Training

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