It could be said that perfectionism is the shadow side of excellence. On the surface it would be difficult to distinguish between the two. Tasks are getting done and done well. People are served and served well. At some point, however, the inner motivation and posture of the person serving begins to emerge.
Harriet Braiker is quoted as stating, “Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing.”
Often perfectionism feeds on the need to be right or to be superior. At times it feeds on the need to please others. Somehow, in the thinking of a perfectionist, not to be perfect tears at the fabric of who you are, rather than assessing the errant thinking or approach to a task.
This is an interesting paradox because perfectionists focus on what they do. The result is that perfectionism cuts at identity even while the focus of the perfectionist is on getting things done right. Excellence focuses on working out of who I am with the result of moving toward getting things done the right way for the right reasons and in the right manner.
“Perfectionism is focused on ‘doing the thing ‘right,’ how things APPEAR, and if OTHERS think it’s done right. Excellence is about ‘doing the right thing.’ It is focused on the REASON for a task, and the RESULTS for it to be a success.”
Unhealthy perfectionism entails the all or nothing, obsessive mindset of striving for flawlessness that messes in a negative way with the psyche. This can lead to dissatisfaction and depression when flawlessness cannot be obtained.
Christian leaders must continually reorient their interior world around listening to, obeying and pleasing Jesus. He is the reason and resource as we lead. The counterfeit of working (leading) as unto the Lord is the self-reliant and self-sufficient effort that is ultimately not sustainable.
Ministry leadership takes its toll when, ever so slowly, we find ourselves counting on our own moxy and resources. The sheer volume of work in ministry, much less the understanding necessary, is overwhelming. Many find themselves caught up in perfectionistic performance rather than endeavoring excellence.
Wil Hernandez, author of Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection, writes:
Many believers who embark on ministry sooner or later discover that the demands of the task can prove very overwhelming. The question is this: Why is it that not too many people make it over the long haul? One chief condition among many others that perennially afflicts most ministries as well as ministers is what well-known author Eugene Peterson labels as the crisis of “under-capitalized vocation.” Many simply do not have what it takes to spiritually fund their ministry undertakings in such a way that they are endowed with staying power.
Choosing excellence in leadership requires our consistent attention to our relationship with Jesus. There is no manual that outlines a plan of action for every eventuality in ministry leadership. We lead as followers of Jesus. We trust a “just in time” plan that is available when we walk closely with Him. His excellence becomes the springboard for excellence in our own lives—in what we do, in what we think, in what we say, in what we choose.
Moving towards doing something perfectly is much different than a perfectionistic spirit. Excellence is a befitting offering for our King. Perfectionism denies Him access and influence in our decisions and out-workings.
Is perfectionism draining you of vitality and fulfillment? Of creativity and healthy risk-taking? Are you weary of obsessing over getting it all right all of the time?
Pursue excellence and let His influence and commands be your perfect choice!
 Hernandez, Wil. Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection. Paulist Press. New York/Mahway, NJ. 27.