Excellence Versus Perfection

“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.
– Leonard Cohen, Anthem

excellence vs perfectionTable based on a poster from http://thebluecollarsuccessgroup.com/

There is not a great deal of conflict or controversy around this comparison as it relates to leadership. Perfection exists as a concept, but not as a practical reality. Good leaders encourage people to strive for excellence, not perfection. If you always wait for perfection nothing will ever get done. As psychologist and author Harriet Braiker put it, “Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing.”

In terms of leadership, both of excellence and perfection find themselves under scrutiny in the context of achieving success. Success is usually measured by comparison to others. Our most visible manifestations of leadership are in campaigns — contests for the public’s hearts, or their imagination.

If in these challenges our competition is excellent, then we have to be more excellent — we need to be perfect, right? No.

In his 1989 book, The Heart of the Order, sports columnist  Thomas Boswell describes the difference between success and excellence this way:

“Success is tricky, perishable, and often outside our control; the pursuit of success makes a poor cornerstone, especially for a whole personality. Excellence is dependable, lasting and largely an issue within our own control; pursuit of excellence, in and of itself, is the best of foundations.”

If success is perishable, and perfection is unrealistic, then leaders in this “pursuit of excellence” are really part of an ongoing learning community, a network of people absorbing and acting on their shared knowledge and wisdom.

If we can agree that excellence is preferable over perfection, how can we make sure that excellence has substance? Look at the mission statements of nonprofit organizations, schools, and businesses. Apparently everybody is already excellent, because the claims of excellence are everywhere.

Maybe excellence is more of a constant reminder of betterment, of constant improvement, more than it is a state of being. Maybe the best way to achieve excellence is to maintain a modest intellectual curiosity, and an attitude that we want to learn something new every day of our lives.

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