With a cumulative 100 years or so of assessment, coaching, and consulting under our belts, we have discovered that nearly every executive-level leader carries with them a “guilty secret.” Sounds juicy, doesn’t it?
In the news over the past few years, some have been found to have purchased millions of dollars of art through their companies; others have willingly or unwittingly participated in insider trading. Still others have participated in dubious financial deals only to find the market has collapsed or they have been scammed.
Are these the guilty secrets to which we refer? No, absolutely not.
The most common guilty secret we hear confessed in our coaching sessions — uttered from the lips of some of the most talented, effective leaders is this: “What I worry about the most is that some day, someone will find out that I am not perfect.”
The drive to exceed expectations, to achieve against the odds, and to continuously improve is instilled in children at an early age. Commonly known as the “achievement drive,” it is associated with parents and significant influencers who:
- Encouraged independence at a very young age
- Lavished praise and rewards for success
- Associated achievements with positive feelings
- Created an instrumental link between the child’s competence or effort, and the result they obtained — sometimes known as efficacy
- Let the child set their own expectation (double edged sword)
Children who internalize these associations are high-achievers, driven by the need to be better, faster, smarter. At their best they are high-performing leaders. But as much as aspiring to be the best is admirable, the outcome is not always pretty.
What’s the Problem with Aspiring to be Perfect?
High achievers drive their organizations to new heights by seeking to take giant steps in improvement and innovation. They think in terms of step function rather than incremental change. They ask “what’s the best I can possibly do here?” and are often uncomfortable with doing the minimum to push a project forwards. Sounds ideal really — so what’s the problem?
Achievement drive is an optimization curve in relation to performance. Too little drive results in underperformance; setting a standard somewhere between “stretch” and “stress” is motivating; setting a constantly stretching standard for oneself and others can create negative (and sometimes contradictory) results for the leader and their organization including:
- Working all hours
- Inability to prioritise
- Tunnel vision
- Unwillingness to delegate
- Guilt and anxiety
- Burning out
In their enthusiasm to be everywhere and always, extreme achievers can unintentionally:
- Disrupt other leaders’ authority
- Create a motivational gap, leaving others behind
- Be so committed that they become hypersensitive when their initiatives are blocked
- Proliferate change initiatives
- Overpromise and underdeliver
This is definitely not pretty — but is manageable.
Coaching and the High Achieving Executive
Executive coaching can enhance the upside benefits of high achievers and help manage the downside risks. It begins with an exploration of the assumptions driving the executive’s behavior, challenging those assumptions, and developing alternative beliefs that create greater functionality; followed by ongoing accountability meetings to review what works (and what doesn’t) to ensure the new behaviors take root in the real world.
If you are one of these “at-risk” high achievers, here are some things you can start working on today:
- Balance your image of your own self-efficacy against that of your employees
- Set pragmatic expectations for yourself — ranging from sufficient to step function
- Monitor the gap between you and your followers in their level of drive
- Review if your behavior is stretching or stress-inducing (individuals vary)
Most of all, give yourself permission to be “nearly perfect” — substitute the question “what am I learning?” for “where have I failed?”
If you or any of your executive leadership struggle with the guilty secret of being perfect — and it is getting in the way of performance — give us a call to discuss how our expert psychologist coaches can help take your leadership to near perfection.