Creativity gets crushed under the weight of perfectionism.
We generally learn perfectionism from an early age. People give us accolades for high performance, flawless accuracy, and orderliness. In a world where our peers can’t seem to find the sock drawer, make their beds, or write coherent sentences, we stand out as beacons of virtue; the hope of civilization (in our own minds). We’re convinced that perfectionism is an accomplishment, not an affliction; a virtue, not a vice. We wear it proud, if not loud.
However, the fruit of perfectionism seems less than desirable. It sometimes (and subtly) nurtures a critical spirit within us. “If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly” becomes “If they can’t do the job perfectly, they’re not worth keeping.” We’d never say that, of course … maybe. But the heart starts to place value on other people based on their effort and performance rather than any intrinsic value.
Perfectionism also has a close cousin; the fear of failure. We aim high because we sense that if people value us the same way we value them, then our performance (and their approval) is crucial to our sense of self-worth. The more they affirm us and applaud us, the more valuable we become. The dark side of this conclusion is that if we fail, we fear we may lose the respect and followership of others. And, insidiously, the fear of failure grows like a cancer; initially undetected or understated, quietly doing greater and greater damage to our souls.
The repercussions of this for leadership are enormous.
If transformational leadership depends on unlearning conformity and unleashing creativity (and it does), then perfectionism and the fear of failure are public enemy #1. They stunt and sometimes destroy our best efforts.
Creativity is not synonymous with chaos or sloppiness. But it does demand grace. It assumes that the first effort is not the final one; that the first attempt is just the beginning; that multiple iterations are the norm; and that failure is neither fatal nor final.
When we have to birth a fully-formed and perfect prototype on the first try, we will either move so slowly that the creative genius of the moment is lost, or not move at all. And in that moment, creativity is crushed.
Perfectionism is not our friend but a foe. If it has sidled up to you and become your companion, show it the door gently but decisively. Transformational leadership cannot thrive until you do.
David Timms is Dean of the School of Christian Leadership at William Jessup University.