There are some leaders who expect perfection. With their personal ideal of what perfect means, they drive others to do things in exactly the way they believe it should be done. These leaders climbed the ladder of success through flawless execution, and they’re proud of it. All the while they’re driving everyone around them crazy.
Wherever the bar in their organization, they see that it needs to be set to their standards, because that’s what they do. Perfection is achieved by others (or so they think) when they meddle, control, or even do the work themselves because not a single person can do the task better than they can.
The perfectionist leaders work away, long hours, devising ways to make their organizations reach that ever-higher perfect summit. They wax eloquent in why things must be done in a particular way.
They make others miserable. The door to their organization is ever-revolving, with experienced employees walking out and new ones coming in all the time. The rumor on the street is that you don’t want to work for these perfectionist leaders because you’ll never learn anything on your own. Even though you came in with great credentials, the work is menial and boring because it’s all been laid out for you — step by step — by the perfectionist.
When you ask the perfectionist leader about the skills of their staff, you’ll hear things like “they’re average employees” or “they just don’t get it.” Perfectionist leaders complain a lot about what’s missing in others, but rarely speak of their virtues.
And then there are some leaders who expect excellence. These leaders uphold excellence in themselves and then they inspire it in others. They understand and love the dissimilarities in their employees, and they somehow manage to help them to become better at their work than they thought they could be.
They encourage employees to surpass their own high bars for achievement by guiding and mentoring, helping them to go beyond what they thought was possible. These leaders who advocate for excellence (rather than perfection) know that when they give of themselves, the payback is enormous in terms of improved performance for individuals and the organization. They have no need to meddle or do the work of others; they are all working at their best and yet still striving for better.
The leaders who expect excellence work reasonable hours because they trust their employees to get the work done in a way best for them while still serving the organization. There is no need to control how the work gets done.
Leaders who bring out excellence in others are talent magnets. The word is out, and people want to have a chance to learn and develop while working with these leaders. They have challenging work to do because their boss has made sure that they are always working to their full potential and beyond. When these employees are ready, they (somewhat reluctantly) leave because they’ve been promoted or because they are ready for new challenges. They too have learned to model excellence.
When you ask the leader who encourages excellence about the skills of their staff, you’ll hear them say things like “I am grateful to have a talented team” and “I’m amazed at how dedicated they are to our work.” These leaders look beyond minor mistakes and flaws of others to see what is good in them and to build upon it. These leaders don’t require perfection.
Which leader would you want to follow?
Mary Jo Asmus is an executive coach and a recovering corporate executive who has spent the past 12 years as president of Aspire Collaborative Services, an executive-coaching firm that manages Fortune 500 corporate-coaching initiatives and coaches leaders to prepare them for bigger and better things.