A long, long time ago, on a continent far away, I was the president of an American Football organization called Gridiron Victoria (GV). To this day, it remains the largest organization I've ever led. GV had some 500 players, coaches, and officials when I left the organization to pursue other professional goals in 2012. When I took over as president in 2010, the league was not in great shape. We had started the year with one of our six clubs folding, leading to a few weeks of bickering as to whether we should have a 10 game or 12 game schedule (we settled on 12). The season ended as lackluster as it had began - with a boring, meagerly attended 7-0 championship game in a hail storm. Players and club administrators were growing bored. The top three teams were a foregone conclusion by week 1 and no one wanted to play the same team 3 times in a season. Those club admins who were old enough to remember when the league had over a dozen clubs in the 90's would frequently reminding the younger members of the "glory days" (and expressing understandable resentment at the current situation).
I knew what we as a league had to do. GV had to grow - or as a league it would die. Slowly at first, then suddenly - without growth, I knew GV was dead. It would only be a matter of time.
The GV Logo then and now. My how things change...
The idea of growth was generally not something the sport's leaders truly embraced at the time. Certainly, they wanted growth, but it had to be the "right" type of growth. In GV's operating rules there were requirements that a new club needed to meet in order to be allowed to participate. These requirements were extremely onerous, and as a result, a new club hadn't applied to play in about 10 years; and when I say onerous, I speak from the position of having tried to create a club. This was before the days of ubiquitous social media, so organizing people was much more difficult than today. The amount of work needed to get a club off the ground would have been a herculean task - so I gave up and decided to join a club that took me nearly an hour to get to by public transport.
Speaking with the leadership at the time, the logic as to why it was so hard to get in made sense, on the surface. They had seen so many clubs with weak finances and limited player/coach pools start up and fail, often mid to late season. I had seen this very thing happen two years before I became president - a club rep came to a league meeting, said nothing, then folded the club the next day, with 3 weeks to go in the season. It was a strain on the league when clubs couldn't make it to the end of a year, and really disheartening each time a club folded. In my opinion, while GV was protecting new clubs from potential failure, it was also protecting itself and its players from additional disappointment, frustration, and aggravation. This is very understandable. Disappointment hurts, and if you have enough of it, people become jaded, and walk away. I remember getting all geared up to play a game only to have a team forfeit after driving an hour to the field. It's not what anyone signed up for, and it's respectable for any organization to try and keep those occurrences to a minimum.
And yet, the league had crafted itself such a requirement of perfection that it had essentially constrained it's own growth - it's own success. By needing each potential club to be at such a high level of members, money, and organizational structure by the time it took the field, it discouraged people from even trying because the effort needed to succeed was so great that it wasn't worth the time to try. This type of discouragement caused by perfection is everywhere in not only business, but life. It's totally understandable - but also tremendously detrimental to one's goals.
It took time and convincing, but eventually, we were able to relax the rules, right at the time when a tremendous opportunity to market the sport to a new audience came available. The NFL was being broadcast on free TV for the first time in years, and we had HD quality footage to be utilized for a commercial, with enough money in the bank to pay for one. Everything aligned perfectly - but in all honesty, if we as a league hadn't relaxed the barriers to entry, we would have missed this opportunity to grow the league as we did. In one year we added 4 clubs, 5 teams, and doubled our player base. We did this by understanding that the new clubs wouldn't be perfect, and that was OK. Our goal was to get them up and walking first, running second. If we had demanded perfection from the outset, maybe we'd have gotten one more club, maybe one more team, but in all likelihood we'd have just swelled the ranks of the existing clubs with little actual change on the scoreboards or the bank accounts. We developed an entry level competition, to avoid burning people out within their first year, and developed timelines and milestones clubs needed to hit to maintain their status with the league. Six years later, only one of the 9 new clubs that came into being since 2010 has folded (Gippsland), and one other of the original 5 clubs merged with a new one a few miles down the road. The league was set up to grow, and in 6 years saw a tripling in the size of the league.
So where does this leave the conversation of leadership? As GV President, I was very demanding of myself, and still am in my other endeavors. I admit that I am often a perfectionist, and it's hard to fight my own impulses. But I've learned that being perfect, not making mistakes, and worse, not allowing for mistakes, doesn't make for great success as a leader. Striving to be perfect only serves to create anxiety and insecurity. People can see through insecurities, and the business world is only going to amplify anxieties with its total uncertainty. Anxious and insecure leaders don't engender loyal and devoted followers because they don't let people in close enough to build quality relationships.
In my opinion, the role of a leader, be it of a football league or of a small business or a billion dollar corporation, is to have a vision of where the organization should go, have the determination to be willing to overcome obstacles, and the creativity to be able to figure out how to bring as many people along for the ride as possible. The best leaders I've been with know how to give their subordinates the room to fail, support to those who do stumble, and just enough vision and forethought to make people want to see where everything is headed.
In life, so many times there's "analysis paralysis", that is not moving until something is "just right". The problem with this thinking, is that nothing will ever be "just right". There will always be something that can be critiqued, judged, assessed. It's much harder, and takes greater courage to say "ok, it's good enough". But these are abstract concepts, and you dear reader are probably thinking this is just another "bashing perfectionism post" - how does this apply to the real world? Well, think about you and/or your business. Is there something you're trying to do right now, but you haven't yet because it's not "perfect"? Have you ever said to yourself - what would my best friend say about it? Would they say it's good enough?
So often, because something is a labor of love by an individual (or a group), all objectivity gets lost in the pursuit of perfection. Aspects get added on like Christmas ornaments because they all seem like they're needed, when in reality it just ends up toppling over like Charlie Brown's tree. If you're stuck in this perfectionist loop - try to extricate yourself and look at the issue from an outsider perspective. Part of what made my work in GV successful is that I had the outsider perspective before becoming President. I had tried to start a new club and stopped when I saw how hard it was. I knew that I didn't need all those things for the product to be "good enough" to start, but the league couldn't see past its own concerns, understandable as they were.
True leadership then, looks at the product, service, business, organization, whatever and says - "how can we grow a success?" rather than "how do we avoid catastrophe?" That's not to say anyone should ignore risks or avoid creating standards - far from it. There has to be some level of what is and isn't acceptable. However, nothing can be fully insulated from risk and error. Someone once told me, "no matter how much you idiot proof something, the world will build a better idiot." While blunt, it speaks to the immutable truth that everything has flaws. It's knowing how to live with those flaws, and to say to yourself and/or your organization that "we're moving forward with a good enough project/product/process and we'll refine it along the way". That mindset, in time, will lead to real personal and organizational success.
So what do you think? Is perfectionism something you struggle with? How do you challenge yourself and/or your team to overcome the idea of perfect? Have a story to share? Leave one in the comments!
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