A leader must learn early on that they need not and cannot afford to burden themself with thinking they must be flawless in the sense of perfection. Perfection and being perfect are two different things. Perfect, as it is meant in the Judeo-Christian tradition, means to be whole (not flawless, but rather emotionally and spiritually healed, despite the flaws), while perfection means to be flawless. As previously discussed, it is the duty of a good leader to struggle constantly toward wholeness, even knowing one may not attain it.
Consider the following story: As autumn arrived in a distant monastery, a Zen master told his disciples to sweep the path because it was being covered with falling leaves. The disciples obeyed and swept clean the path. The Zen master came at eventide and, inspecting the leafless path, told his disciples to sweep it again the next day because they had not done a perfect job. Again they swept the path, and again he told them to do it over because they had failed to do a perfect job.
Finally, after the third try, one of the disciples asked the Zen master what was wrong with their job of sweeping. He reached up and gently shook a branch. Five leaves fell onto the path, whereupon the master looked at his disciples and said, “Now the path is perfect.”
A leader driven by the need for perfection is so afraid of criticism that they is loath to admit errors, which then become demons in the form of secrets that must be hidden and guarded, all the while increasingly ensnaring the person in the web of denial. Only when you is willing, openly and forthrightly, to admit your mistakes can you learn from them and in the process create and maintain interpersonal relationships built on trust that both allows and accounts for human frailty and human error.
When the need for perfection rears its ugly head, there is an alternative to accepting its tyranny. You can always build a little conscious imperfection into your endeavors and thus free your from the tyrant.
A lovely Persian story illustrates this point well: Persian rug weavers of old, although capable of weaving a perfect rug, always inserted a single, hidden flaw because to create the perfect rug would be blasphemous since “only Allah is perfect.” In this way, they honored their Higher Power and kept their “right size,” which is to say that they confirmed their humanity and protected themselves against the neurosis of perfectionism. This is a good practice for a leader to follow because death of the tyrant of perfectionism allows you to be more honest with your followers.
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Text © by Chris Maser, 2010. All rights reserved.
This article is excerpted from my 1998 book, Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Development. Lewis Publishers, Boca Raton, FL. 235 pp. It is updated in my 2012 book, Decision Making For A Sustainable Environment: A Systemic Approach. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. If you want more information about this book, want to purchase it, or want to contact me—visit my website.