Friday, August 17, 2007

Excellence is Powerful by Michelle Kunz

Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power. -- Seneca (5 BC - 65 AD)

Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. -- Epictetus (55 AD -135 AD)
Perfection is anger and frustration.
Excellence is powerful.

This article's opening quotes are purposefully taken from ancient times. The struggle of humans to be at peace with what is not within our direct control is timeless. It is comforting to consider that since people first formed societies we have been engaged in power struggles, and it is from these power struggles that perfectionism arises. Whether overt or deeply hidden, perhaps even subconscious, the struggle to gain and/or maintain power over another person or situation which is rightfully not within our power is at the root of almost every stress we have ever known.

Tracing our path from the need to be right at all costs to the fear this breeds within us, we can easily see how perfectionism gives rise to anger and frustration.

Self directed anger

Directed inwardly, perfection's unrealistic goals set us up for self-hatred and ongoing frustration as we continually fall short of our own expectations. No one else could possibly design a more rigid set of standards than we do for ourselves. In fact, for many people those very standards keep them in a state of paralysis as they realize on some level they cannot meet their own viciously high standards and thus procrastinate beginning to avoid failure later. A self defeating cycle is then put in play as anger and frustration set in as a result of the procrastination. As self esteem suffers, the disconnect between our potential and our reality widens, and anger and frustration increase.

Anger towards others

When another individual (or a group of individuals) is the focus of our perfectionist tendencies, anger and frustration build in both parties. We perceive latent potential and set goals and standards based on our desire for perfection. As leaders, we are aware of the risk of making a mistake, so we are heavily vested in getting it right and making sure everyone else does, too. We are motivated by fear more than openness, so our desire is to drive every person and every project to our level of comfort. When deadlines slip, mistakes are made or someone can't keep up, anger and frustration flare.

Anger towards us

Meanwhile, the individuals at whom these impossible standards are directed may feel managed rather than led. They may feel they have no voice in their project, no choice in their methods and processes, and are no more than a body going through the motions to produce an outcome. They are silent in meetings, or perhaps show their resentment through sarcasm or constant joking. Even worse, they may find ways to stall -- sabotaging the effort through passive-aggression because their anger and frustration has no vent.

Why is excellence powerful?

Excellence is powerful because excellence is willing to be wrong, learn, and get even better. Excellence takes appropriate risks in the face of fear. When a leader combines the willingness to be wrong with appropriate risk taking, a powerful energy begins to take shape in their way of thinking and doing. They are free to explore, express, share, learn, expand.

Control is limiting. Power, in the way we are discussing it, is freeing. A powerful leader knows how to build levels of trust in her team in such a way that open conflict is explored without humiliation, rancor or harm. When team members, from the lowest level to the highest, can engage in lively, free, open debate, new and creative ideas are discovered which otherwise would have lain stagnant beneath the rubble of anger and frustration created by the culture of control.

A powerful leader pursues excellence because it begins first with the leader. And a powerful leader knows that this is, after all, the only thing within her power to control.

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