“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” The opening line of Ford Madox Ford’s 1915 novel revisited in my mind as Charlotte recounted her sorrowful, yet insightful story. Both tales were tragic. Both dealt with misperception and misplaced passion. Both caused disillusionment, death and madness.
Ford’s fictional account of illicit love ended in the death of three characters and the narrator’s decent into madness. Charlotte’s story of tough love concluded with the death of three characteristics -- creativity, innovation and trust -- and she became mad at herself. While Ford titled his story, The Good Solider: A Tale of Passion, Charlotte’s story could more aptly be labeled The Good Executive: A Tale of Perfection.
Her compelling testimony is a cautionary tale for other leaders who zealously purse perfection.
Charlotte was an extremely capable and confident government executive whose rapid rise in grade was hard-earned and well-deserved. She’d worked tirelessly to master her trade and was recognized throughout her organization for her diligence and determination. Therefore, I was not surprised when she strode to the podium where I stood at the conclusion of a 360-degree feedback workshop. Eyes ablaze and report in hand, she said she was disappointed by her employees’ comments. Instead of lauding her, they’d lambasted her. They criticized her pursuit of excellence; her intolerance for imperfect performance.
Charlotte readily acknowledged she demanded the best of herself and others. She was exacting, but she had to be. Her public service motivation required it. Her work was critical to the health and safety of the nation; much too important to compromise. So while she genuinely cared for employees, she could not accept less than excellence. If tough love was needed to produce results, so be it. Nonetheless, she was deeply dismayed her employees could not see the good intent behind her tough tactics; the unwavering commitment behind her uncompromising behavior.
Charlotte stopped dumbstruck. Her eyes misted. Her cheeks reddened. Her mouth dropped. A mournful “oh, no” escaped her lips. Her past and present collided, producing a painful new perspective.
A few weeks earlier Charlotte had overheard her teenage daughter talking to a friend on the phone. She was recounting a landmark moment in her childhood. Her daughter said when she was 5 years old she returned from school with a coloring-book picture for her mother. A fairy princess scrawled in bright pink, purple and red; smattered with glitter and glue. Beaming with love and pride, she rushed to her mother and presented the picture. Her mother gently took the artwork from her tiny upraised hands. Appraising it, Charlotte responded naturally -- without thought, hesitation, or malice -- “But, honey, you didn’t color within the lines.” Retaining her composure, her daughter recovered her picture and retreated to her room.
Concluding her phone conversation, Charlotte’s daughter used this story to explain her artistic ineptitude and her absence from her school’s homecoming decorating committee.
Not until Charlotte recalled this event in a new context did she realize her error: how in her well-intentioned pursuit of perfection she’d crushed her child’s creativity, stifled her initiative and trampled her trust. She loved her daughter and wanted her to succeed in everything in her life -- from art to academics. Her casual comments were meant to champion her daughter’s artistic efforts, not criticize them; to direct her talents, not destroy them. Only in retrospect did she perceive the irreparable harm she’d inadvertently inflicted.
Reflecting on this vignette, Charlotte realized she treated her employees in a similar fashion. With excellence her sole standard, their best efforts were never good enough and never would be. She routinely rejected their best efforts when it did not meet her strict specifications. As a result, work backlogged as her team grew hesitant to bring products or problems to her attention.
Concurrently, she grew reluctant to allocate work she knew she would ultimately reject and eventually redo. Instead of perfection, she realized her unrealistic expectations and uncompromising standards had:
- Suppressed employee initiative, innovation and engagement.
- Squandered employees’ diverse skills.
- Impeded the efficient allocation and effective execution of work.
- Prompted individual procrastination and organizational paralysis.
- Diminished trust and teamwork.
- Heightened uncertainty and stress.
Passionate to succeed, she redoubled her efforts with each shortfall, ultimately achieving success only in alienating her employees and exhausting herself. She’d been a good executive, but a poor leader, and had paid a steep price.
This would have been the saddest story I’d ever heard except that Charlotte was as dogged in searching for solutions as she’d been in pursuing perfection. That evening she crafted a strategy to remedy the situation, the tenets of which included:
- Realizing there is no monopoly on excellence, nor is there a single criterion or path to exceptional performance.
- Recognizing when good enough is and when it isn’t; when better is the enemy of good.
- Relinquishing oversight of mundane items to focus on the major issues.
- Relaxing requirements when possible (without sacrificing success or safety) to expand the opportunity for new or novel solutions to emerge.
- Rewarding employees for their unique capabilities and contributions.
- Restraining from criticizing the product or performance before demonstrating compassion for the person.
- Remembering to coach and not merely critique.
Returning to her office the following week, Charlotte informed her team of her newfound perspective and plan. She retold the story of how, despite her best intent, she had unwittingly doused her daughter’s artistic spark. Vowing to amend her ways, she promised to support them when they “colored outside the lines” in the hope they could produce not only broader but also better results.
While suspicious of Charlotte’s epiphany, her employees’ concerns dissipated when she prominently posted on her office door a tattered drawing of fairy princess, buried beneath a blur of crayon marks, glitter, and glue. The caption beneath it proclaimed: “PERFECT!”
Michael F. Belcher is a faculty member at the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Executive Institute. He teaches leadership and change management to federal executives in the Leadership for a Democratic Society Program.