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  • Writer's pictureAmii Barnard-Bahn

Leadership Lessons from an Opera Diva

Updated: Apr 21, 2020

As we shelter-in-place going on week 5, I find I am pushing myself more than ever to get everything done, and done well.

My passion for moving things forward has hit roadblocks before, but none like I’ve had to face in this time of COVID-19. There are things I want to accomplish that I can’t accomplish, and it’s out of my control.

It’s in this context that I was inspired to go to the arts, one of my constant sources for renewal and inspiration. I was drawn to learn more about the famous opera singer Maria Callas, who was known for always striving for excellence.

After reading several biographies, listening to Maria’s voice, and following her fantastical rise to stardom and premature end to her voice, relationships, and career, I was motivated to create a new leadership-focused video that I hope you will find insightful.

Like several of my clients, Maria was a relentless perfectionist, and as a leader it’s important for you to know about the push and pull of this common leadership derailer: perfectionism.

At its best, perfectionism inspires our genius, helps us push past barriers, and helps us do what others sometimes say is not achievable. 

But it has a dark side. When overused, we miss the big picture. We have an irrational need to pick at the details. 

Professionals who have perfectionist tendencies tend to have achieved and advanced because of their willingness to pay attention to details and ensure a flawless execution on major projects. 

Once promoted into the C-Suite, however, this need to control and correct doesn’t scale. To achieve at an executive level, significant tasks must be delegated to others, and the perfectionist often finds it hard to give up control. 

One savvy and otherwise successful executive client I worked with was almost demoted due to his perfectionism. He micromanaged his team instead of developing them, and his business unit gained a reputation for holding things up; he reviewed every detail and took longer than required to get things done.

Together, we created an action plan where he chose 3 projects to lead and delegated the rest, agreeing that 80% of the time, “good enough” was good enough. We also mapped out the bench strength of his team and paired up with the work to be done, ensuring stretch assignments and efficient delegation of authority to keep him out of the weeds and give his team a chance to shine. 

Take a listen to this famous example, and see if you recognize yourself in any way. Reflect on how you can leverage perfectionism to drive your career forward without driving your best team members away. Most of the time, “good enough” really is good enough. 

Signs of a perfectionism problem:

  • You have difficulty delegating. 

  • You miss the big picture. 

  • You get caught up in process vs. people. Processes can be fixed more easily than people. Pay attention if you’re overly attracted to process.

  • You feel trapped by your punishing drive to achieve. Perfectionism usually leads to intense personal stress.

If any of these resonate with you, here are some considerations for making a shift:

  • Examine the personal cost. Whether it is a lack of sleep or a lack of joy in the work, these are hallmarks of an over-stressed leader. 

  • Examine the opportunity cost. What are you sacrificing? Are you missing out on being first-to-market during the time you take to make it perfect?

  • Examine the cost to your team. If you don’t give them the chance to perform, you’re not leading. And great talent doesn’t like to be micromanaged - you’ll eventually downgrade the potential of your team, either because you're training them to be like you (lacking in the strength of intellectual diversity), or because the top performers will have left.

Adjustments to harness your drive:

  • Focus. Choose a few jobs that must be done perfectly, and consciously give up the rest to “good enough”. Relax your performance standards with others - all C-Suite leaders must learn to accept flawed work some of the time. 

  • Monitor your behavior. Review your work over the past 3 days. Where can you start to relax your standards without any major problems?

  • Check in with your team. In your next 1:1, review the degree of responsibility you’ve given them and talk about development opportunities for further growth. Make sure you are delegating a healthy responsibility to each, so that they can learn and take some of the weight off your shoulders. Will it feel uncomfortable? If this is a big change, then initially, probably yes. But keep focused on the upside for everyone. 

If you’re interested in upping your self-knowledge about behaviors that can hold you back from your full potential, I recommend the book Why CEOs Fail. The book aligns with the eleven behaviors that can derail leadership success, as revealed in the renowned Hogan assessment I use with clients.

The Hogan Assessment is the world’s leading personality assessment tool for the workplace, helping to identify a leader’s personality characteristics, core value drivers, decision-making ability and career derailment risks. As a certified Hogan coach, I use this powerful tool with my clients as part of my methodology to identify the behaviors that can limit leadership growth over time and reveal insights that lead to increased leadership effectiveness.

As emotional intelligence guru Daniel Goldman has observed, the most successful leaders are those who learn to manage their negative impulses. 

In a time when so many are threatened both in health and financial stability, I hope you and your family are staying well. 

Take care and stay strong,


P.S. If there's a friend you think can benefit from this message, please forward it to them. If they'd like, they can subscribe to receive their own copy of the newsletter and my Promotability Index here.

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