Why Female Leaders Have A ‘Perfect Problem’

Is an obsession with perfection hindering your ability to be a bold leader? Zana Goic Petricevic explores how to embrace your imperfections to lead with purpose.

In my work, I see all too often a desire to be seen as perfect, especially by female leaders. It comes down to what I describe as ‘the illusion of perfection’: “I’m worthy and safe if I’m doing things perfectly so I receive recognition by others and therefore deserve to belong to the group”. 

But this desire, while understandable, hinders your leadership abilities, because most of the time it diminishes creation, authentic expression and purposeful innovation. You cannot be a bold leader if you’re simply seeking perfection. ​​True leaders are not afraid to take risks. They choose uncontrollable, imperfect, and uncertain. They choose all of that to crack the code of their leadership. They choose to risk to grow. But no risk can ever be taken by staying within the frame of so-called perfection and therefore no space for growth can ever be made that way. 

This drive toward perfection sends a message that what we do is never good enough. Perfectionism is something which is happening internally for women, and many times it is the context around them that encourages women to think that way and awakens their most rigid inner critic that keeps their authentic voice silent. A lot of women that I work with are in industries which are very male-dominated environments. In these industries, it can be even harder for women to find their voice and to understand when they have contributed enough, as they often sense greater pressure to be perfect to feel that they belong in a group.

Balancing Roles

The reality is that women tend to hold a lot of different roles, to which we hold ourselves to high expectations. There are expectations at home, there are expectations at the workplace, and it can get a lot. Especially in the covid era, there were so many moments when women were working from home and for home. When we are striving for perfection in all of the many roles we hold and in the middle of highly complex circumstances it makes it very difficult to juggle between them and to be perfect in every single one. 

But then we get to the question, what is perfect? And who is setting these standards? Most often it is women who are setting these standards for themselves. There is a feeling that we need to be perfect to belong, to get that recognition for what we do or who we are. There isn’t anything wrong with the need to belong, it is a basic human need. We all need to belong. The problem arises when we become blind to our accomplishments because we don’t believe that we deserve to belong unless we are perfect.

To challenge this mindset, we need to celebrate our achievements more. To take the time to realise and enjoy our successes instead of constantly driving forward without taking the time to stop and enjoy achievements. As part of this, we need to set our own standards of what we want to achieve which is authentic to ourselves, not according to what we believe our environment expects from us. That doesn’t mean we should not strive for excellence or improvement. That means we need to learn to give ourselves recognition for having done our best in any given context. 

Setting Boundaries

Recognising ourselves for having done our best in a given context means being authentic to our own standards.

Think about the impact that you are having through the many roles that you’re holding and find the recognition for yourself in those roles, celebrate your own achievements and set boundaries for your inner critic. 

As we strive to be perfect, we need to know when it is good enough. Without setting these boundaries to silence our demons, we can create this insatiable drive to reach some perfect standards set by us and they always get higher. It is like climbing a mountain, getting to the top and not being able to stop to enjoy the view as you’re already looking to the next mountain you need to climb up. The long-term impact is that you never get time to reflect on your successes, to feel happy and satisfied with yourself. Yes, you might achieve this, but does it come with ease? Does it come with joy? Because if it doesn’t, then you start wondering what was the purpose of all of it? Does your leadership bring you the joy of creation or is it simply making you feel exhausted?

Creating compassion

Once you dismiss the idea of perfection in yourself, you also need to stop seeking it in other people.

So, what do you do as a leader when faced with other people’s imperfections? Rather than throwing those people under the bus, remember the phrase: If I see it in you, I’ve got it in me. Encouraged by this thought, you’re likely to see that you do not dare to welcome it in you just as equally as you are refusing to tolerate it in the other. 

I’m not condoning anyone shirking their responsibilities or not doing their job properly. Rather, I’m trying to make the point that everything – whatever we label it, good or bad – exists in all of us and it is subject to our choice when and where we bring it out. Because as Rumi says: “You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean, in a drop.” Hopefully, you’ll notice the compassion this attitude brings into the space: compassion towards yourself and the other.

Much of bold leadership is about daring to know what to do and which direction to go when you can’t possibly be certain what the right answer is. It’s about clearly pursuing the path towards your vision and taking the discomfort of the uncertainty, again simply by daring to know that you’re on the right path – rather than hesitate to walk the path until you have called it the perfect one according to your own definition. Because, eventually, who knows what’s perfect and what’s not…

About the author: Zana Goic Petricevic is an internationally certified leadership coach and consultant. She is the founder of Bold Leadership Culture, and the author of Bold Reinvented: Next level leading with Courage, Consciousness and Conviction.

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