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Does perfectionism damage leadership?

Are we setting ourselves up for failure by expecting perfection from our leaders?

At risk of sounding like a millennial cliché, I was listening to an interesting podcast the other day. It was New York Times journalist Ezra Klein in conversation with sex and relationships advice columnist Dan Savage. It was a wild ride of polyamory, chosen family and marriage issues – not necessarily HR’s priorities, but stick with me.

Savage looked at why couples fall out and eventually split, with one of the main issues of contention being expectation vs reality. If you expect your spouse to have done the dishes when you get home and they haven’t, rather than getting annoyed that a task has been left undone, question why, if they don’t do the dishes, you’re disappointed by this. Perhaps dish washing is simply not their forte and they’ve supported you in other ways that day.

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There’s no such thing as a perfect partner, Savage insists, and by expecting them to have met your (often unspoken) requirements, you’re setting yourself up for repeated disappointment.

This got me thinking about the expectations we put onto our leaders, who are, like us, flawed humans. But when they make a mistake, be it large or small, we’re quick to bad mouth them and express our dismay. Are they the right person for the job?

Every leader has said the wrong thing at the wrong time, failed to handle an issue correctly or misjudged a situation. And I think we are too unforgiving when it comes to dealing with this. Of course, mistakes should be rectified, but they are an inevitability. If you’re expecting your leader to constantly make the right call, surely you will be disappointed eventually.

So I’m encouraging managers, employees, CEOs and HR directors alike to reconsider what a good leader looks like. Is it one who never makes a mistake? Or is it one who can admit to them and come up with a good solution? I know which I’d rather have as a leader.

This realignment will lead to a better work environment, a culture of forgiveness and accountability and create opportunities for change and agility – as explored in this issue’s cover story. It’s a mindset shift – but that’s never a bad thing.

Though, try as I may, I can’t promise not to be disappointed when the dishes haven’t been done after a long day at the office. 

Jo Gallacher is editor of HR magazine


The full article of the above first appeared in the January/February 2023 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.