Perfectionism Will Slow You Down in a Crisis

By RASMUS HOUGAARD (Managing Director, Potential Project International) and JACQUELINE CARTER (International Partner and Director of Potential Project North America)
This is an updated version of the article originally published in

Almost overnight, the game has changed for leaders. Just a short time ago, pre-coronavirus, we seemed to be in a relatively stable world where many factors were known and predictable, and achieving success looked like the pursuit of perfection. But in a crisis, when reality is changing by the day (or even by the hour), when there is no way of knowing with certainty what lies ahead or the best course of action to take, there is no time for perfection.

Suddenly, perfectionism has become a liability. Dr. Michael Ryan, Executive Director of the World Health Organization Health Emergency Program, has been at the front lines of several global health threats, including the fight against Ebola and now the coronavirus. On managing through a crisis, he says: “If you need to be right before you move, you will lose. Speed trumps perfection. Perfection is the enemy of good when it comes to emergency management.”

In the midst of great uncertainty, leaders across all industries are adjusting strategies and supply chains, rewriting the rules of operating, and sometimes making things up as they go. This kind of leadership demands mental agility. However, there is a challenge: our minds are not naturally built for agility.

Evolution has wired our minds for distraction, as in eons past, constant attention to a dangerous landscape helped us survive. They are also wired for empathy, as this helped us gather in groups and create communities. And they are wired for ego, the most basic mechanism of self-preservation.

To adopt an agile mindset, these three hardwired settings must be managed well. We’ll now look a bit more deeply at each challenge and offer thoughts on developing this mindset and managing crises with better results.

The challenge of distractions

As you lead through these uncertain times, you need to quickly zoom out to comprehend the shifting big picture and then zoom in on the short-term actions to be executed.

This can seem impossible when you are also inundated with information: more emails, more meetings, and more news. Information overload increases the risk of distractibility, making it hard to remain aware and difficult to focus. Distractibility – when your mind jumps from one thing to the other – is not agility. It is following whatever calls for attention, without strategic focus or diligent prioritization.

To combat distractibility, we need the mental agility to shift between focus and awareness. Focus is our ability to stay with single-pointed attention on the task at hand and effectively execute our priorities. Awareness is our ability to look at the bigger picture, the future, and the changes ahead. Awareness allows us to detect and assess environmental changes, to hold the meta-view of our organization, and to ultimately separate the signals from the noise. After assessing the big picture, focus is required to respond decisively, to deploy the necessary capabilities, and to execute with discipline.

To test your agility between focus and awareness, try this: As you read this sentence, abruptly shift your focus away from these words and become aware of your overall priorities for today. How did it go? Did the switch happen instantaneously or was there any mental lag? Did any part of your mind still linger on the words you just read? If you’re not sure about your experience, try again; shift your focus from something detailed to an awareness of a bigger picture.

To decrease distractibility and increase mental agility, think of your leadership work right now in terms of small sprints — together they may make up a marathon, but each is its own race. Between every sprint, allow yourself a few moments of pause. Let your mind settle down for even just a minute. Take many small pauses throughout the day when you are not trying to achieve anything. These pauses will deepen both your focus and awareness and help you assess whether you are focusing on the right things.

(By the way, mental agility is closely related to the practice of mindfulness, which builds the mental muscles to be both focused and aware. There are many free apps available to help you practice mindfulness.)

The challenge of our ego

Right now, the world is changing fast and leaders are moving swiftly to stabilize and reposition their businesses. Unfortunately, egos can get in the way of these agile pivots. Our egos tend to be attached to our past successes and how things used to be. When everything gets upended, and our past successes and usual approaches are suddenly not relevant anymore, our ego hurts. We begin to hold on even tighter to the world we used to know and understand. Ego kills our ability to be agile.

The remedy to ego is selflessness, taking our ego out of the picture for a while and basically leaving it at the front door before we show up at work every day. Selflessness means asking ourselves how we can serve the mission of the company and not worrying about fame, fortune, and influence. For leaders, it means especially being honest about not knowing the answers, asking openly for advice, perspectives and support, and recognizing that it takes more than two eyes to look into an unknown future.

There are many amazing examples of selflessness in action as companies respond to the coronavirus crisis. For example, biotech company leaders are breaking down corporate walls to collaborate and support each other in the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. One company, Ginkgo Bioworks, is giving free access to its R&D platform to help other companies accelerate the development of diagnostics, vaccines, and therapeutics.

Of course, selflessness must be balanced with self-confidence. Your teams must feel your sense of confidence in the strategy they are executing against. When you are able to marry conviction with freedom from ego, you instill a deep sense of trust and psychological safety in your organization. When that happens, every part of your organization feels empowered to take calculated risks, adapt, innovate and move with the speed of the crisis.

The challenge of empathy

Empathy, the ability to recognize and resonate with other’s emotions, is crucial for good leadership. But in times of crisis, empathy can become a barrier to taking the right actions. Empathy can slow down your agility.

Juan Enriquez, Managing Director of Excel Venture Management, recently offered a piece of advice to leaders in these times of crisis: “[You] have to start thinking like surgeons. A surgeon doesn’t go in thinking, ‘This is going to hurt, and the recovery over the next two months is going to hurt.’ A surgeon goes in saying, ‘To save the patient’s life or make the patient far better off than she or he is today, this is the operation we have to carry out.’ And that’s exactly what you have to think about as leaders.”

Leaders are often forced to make tough decisions about layoffs, salary reductions, site closures, etc. which impact people’s lives negatively. As empathetic people, we don’t like hurting others — and because of this we are at risk of not doing what needs to be done.

The remedy for empathetic paralysis is compassion. Empathy and compassion are very different from a psychological, emotional, and neurological point of view. Empathy arises when we see someone else suffering, but it tends to stay within us. Compassion, on the other hand, is more constructive. It starts with empathy and then turns outward, with an intent to help.

To observe compassion in action, consider the actions and recent statements of Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever. He expresses deep empathy for those suffering from the coronavirus and for those offering care. And, he translates these emotions into a very clear and bold action plan, including a global contribution of goods valued over €100 million, with another €500 million in cash flow relief to small-scale retail customers and vulnerable suppliers, and the declaration of May 12 as a “Day of Service” in the United States when every essential item produced at its 14 U.S. factories will be donated to community partners.

To bring more compassion into your leadership and unlock greater agility, make a habit of asking yourself a simple question whenever you are with another person: How can I be of benefit to this person? This simple question repeated many times through the day will gradually rewire your way of thinking and acting.

For leaders operating in times of crisis, or in any other time for that matter, overcoming these three challenges with focus and awareness, selflessness, and compassion will help you to be mindful, but still act with agility.

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