Oswald Letter

Excellence Not Perfection

The other day a friend of mine suggested I type “excellence vs. perfection” into the Google search box and see what came up. When I got back to my office, I did exactly as he had suggested. The very top organic search result was a link to the site www.boodrow.com/boodrow4/perfection.htm, which had a list that compared and contrasted excellence and perfection. Many thanks to the website’s creator for the list. The author is unknown.

  • Perfection is being right. Excellence is being willing to be wrong.
  • Perfection is fear. Excellence is taking a risk.
  • Perfection is anger and frustration. Excellence is powerful.
  • Perfection is control. Excellence is spontaneous.
  • Perfection is judgment. Excellence is accepting.
  • Perfection is taking. Excellence is giving.
  • Perfection is doubt. Excellence is confidence.
  • Perfection is pressure. Excellence is natural.
  • Perfection is the destination. Excellence is the journey

The list holds a great message for any leader — make sure you’re demanding excellence, not perfection. Vince Lombardi, the legendary Green Bay Packers football coach, once said, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we will catch excellence.” Understanding that subtle difference is important for any manager.

Let me tell you a story about someone who worked for me years ago. Though it’s not his real name, I’ll call him Bob. Bob was an incredibly talented man who was about 20 years my senior. It’d be fair to say he was a bit of a Renaissance man. He was incredibly bright and well-read. Bob was an excellent writer. He was a scratch golfer and had sung opera. This guy could do it all. And he brought a level of intensity to anything he did that was almost unmatchable. Bob had the potential to be one of the strongest performers in my charge, yet he never reached his full potential as my employee.

You see, Bob had one major problem — he was a perfectionist. I’m not talking that he wanted to do his best at all times. I’m saying that Bob needed every project he worked on to be PERFECT. Excellence was not good enough for Bob, it had to be perfect. And thus came the rub. I couldn’t wait for perfection because it wasn’t going to happen. As Lombardi said, “perfection is not attainable.” So every minute Bob spent trying to make the excellent perfect, to borrow a phrase from country music, was time well wasted.

So Bob started to miss deadlines. His productivity never reached the level that was required of him. In the time that Bob could have completed three projects that were done excellently, instead he finished one. That one project was excellent, but he had tried to make it perfect and spent an inordinate and unacceptable amount of time to do it. No amount of counseling Bob on this matter could get him to change his ways. He continued to demand perfection of himself and was failing to meet his job requirements.

How’s the story end? Not well, as you’d expect. Bob quit in frustration because he believed that my demands to produce more were unrealistic. I couldn’t convince him to accept excellence instead of perfection. His stance was that I was asking him to accept less than his best. My failure was that I could not effectively articulate the difference between excellence and perfection. Maybe if I had seen this list I could have done a better job of managing Bob and his own expectations.

So take a look at the list. Recognize the difference between excellence and perfection. Make sure that you’re looking for excellence out of your people, not perfection. Then communicate to your team what it is you really expect.