Mastery doesn't mean being perfect

I run across a lot of high performing leaders in my work. And some of them have a trait in common—the intense drive to be perfect. It’s what propels them to master their specialty, but it can also be their Achilles heel.
Consider the young professional I was talking with recently. He told me he was under intense pressure to “make it” in his field. His work had been noticed by a supplier in his industry and he has been asked to represent their products, and train other users in businesses like his own, in addition to his regular job. This is a coveted position in this industry and he is on the fast track to more notoriety and a bigger career. “I’m under so much stress,” he confided. I feel I have to know everything and I dread not being able to answer a question,” he explained. “I get so nervous, I’m over-preparing and a wreck. I’m afraid of screwing up…so then I screw up.”
I asked, “Do you feel a little like an imposter? Like perhaps they might find out you really don’t know as much as you think you should to be in this position? Because the “imposter complex” is pretty common among high achievers,” I said. “It’s a little like those dreams a lot of people have about not being prepared for a test.” He seemed surprised that I had read his thoughts.
I went on to tell him about how I used to feel like an imposter myself, when I started writing my column 27 years ago (can it possibly be that long?). I kept thinking of all the reasons why I wasn’t qualified—I didn’t know enough, hadn’t been in business long enough, hadn’t been a leader long enough, didn’t have a PhD, and on and on. I kept thinking someone would tap me on the shoulder and say, “What gives you the right to have an advice column?”
As the years passed, I began to relax about it and found my confidence. I began to loosen up and admit when I didn’t know something. I started having more fun when I gave presentations—laughed at myself, engaged the audience more, admitted when I didn’t know something.
I suggested he was probably going through the normal growing pains that come along with high expectations, a strong need to succeed and a drive to become a master.
I saw him recently and he told me he had carefully thought about what I had said. He said the burden of fear of failing began to slough off. He was thrilled with a recent training session he had conducted, where he caught himself doing something during the presentation, and he poked fun at himself. The audience loved it. Then he was asked a question and he turned it around and asked the audience what their experiences had been. They jumped in and later told him “Only a true pro has the confidence to engage the audience that way.” He had discovered that by shedding the need to be perfect, his credibility had actually risen.
What a joy to hear his story. I told him to enjoy the ride, because he had already demonstrated his technical proficiency, or the supplier never would have asked him to represent them to their customers, in the first place. Now it was a matter of focusing on helping his audiences, instead of focusing on himself.
Down the road he will likely come to a place where he will be on the top of his field. Then the problem shifts from worrying about not being good enough, to thinking you are better than you really are. Ironic isn’t it? Then the challenge is to keep an open and eager mind, to keep learning from other people, rather than believing you already know it all.
Ah, life. It’s always a challenge, isn’t it?

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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