Challenging the ‘effortless perfection’ myth – how to be OK with imperfection as a Quiet Leader

December 9, 2022

< back to blog home

When did we decide we were done with learning? I think it’s so important to give yourself permission to not be good at whatever you’re starting to do or be. How else do we grow within our quiet ambition, hone our skills, and inspire others to do the same? Here are my thoughts on giving yourself, and others, that permission as a Quiet Leader.

As adults it feels frightening, exposing, vulnerable, you name it, when we start something new. When we’re a learner again. There seems an internal expectation that we must be good instantly or we’re just not good enough, we must hide our doubts and discomfort.

As a Quiet Leaders, you might often deal with imposter syndrome and perfectionism, so this can be an especially tricky thing – to start doing something new in our leadership. For instance, when trying out speaking up in meetings you might stumble or not say exactly what you meant to say, or maybe it feels like no one was listening. It wasn’t perfect, it didn’t feel good enough, so you don’t try again. But it was a start, that’s the thing.

This comes up a lot around yoga – mostly I think because it’s easier to talk about it (work and leadership I think are much harder). I often hear that ‘yoga isn’t for me because’… ‘I’m not flexible enough’, ‘I’m not strong enough’, ‘my balance isn’t very good’.

Where on earth did this come from? Do we tell babies that they’d better not try walking because, really, they just don’t have the strength? OK so in yoga, ex gymnast teachers don’t help the perception of what ‘normal’ people doing and teaching yoga look like, but the idea is that yoga will help us increase our flexibility, strength and balance. Starting from where we are right now.

So when did we lose the vulnerability to try and fail, try and fail, and then try and succeed? As the Japanese proverb goes – ‘fall 7 times, rise 8’?

We praise and delight in children persevering and finally getting it, so where does our intolerance come from for this in adulthood? Who, after all is the finished article, perfection embodied? Not me.

Life is all about practice. Always. After all, how many things are called ‘practice’ in our lives? ‘meditation practice’ for one, and it’s more western stuff too – ‘veterinary practice’, ‘medical practice’. No one is being experimented on, but I for one hope that all professionals are learning, growing, getting better, more experience, embodying the learning.

So life IS practice.

A wonderful introverted leader who works with me is a master at translation, communication and application of scientific information into advice. His verbal briefings are legendary. He must just be a natural, until we discussed all the preparation and practice he does.

So why don’t we all discuss our preparation and practice to make it OK?

Well it’s about our basic human needs, and fear. We all have basic needs to be competent, connect with others, and have autonomy. And we fear that ‘not being good enough’ means we’ll be judged, rejected, metaphorically thrown out of the tribe into the cold. So we would rather be assumed to be effortlessly competent than all be honest about all the learning, hard work and false starts, mistakes that go on behind the scenes. As Quiet Leaders we often question ourselves too — if we need to put in all that effort, doesn’t that mean we’re not good enough? And so the myth of effortless perfection perpetuates and pressurises.

Yet so many great leaders have coaches to continue their development, to become better leaders. If Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey and Steve Jobs had and have coaches to help hone their leadership skills, then how can we deny the permission that this gives?

So share what you’re working on in your leadership, don’t sell the culture of perfection without failure, preparation or practice – how will your people grow if they don’t think it’s possible and you’ve either got it or you haven’t? If we continue to feed the perception that our skills are fixed, how will people be inspired to try, to try again, and to grow and develop to be the best they can be?

Yes it’s uncomfortable, and there’s a balance between sharing and still appearing competent, but push your comfort in this area. Ask others, give permission.

And above all, keep practicing.