Overcoming the Perfectionism Paradox: Strategies For Women of Color in Higher Education Leadership to Break Free

Higher Ed Leadership Series

You’ve just been accepted into a new role in higher education leadership – congratulations! But something feels off; you’re overwhelmed, and despite all your hard work, you still can’t help feeling like, “Do I really belong here?” Perfectionism, the silent companion of ambition, is often a formidable challenge for women of color ascending leadership roles in higher education. You feel compelled to prove you’re worthy of the role you’ve been given and simultaneously feel as though you’ll never measure up. 

Spoiler alert: you didn’t earn that role because you’re *perfect.* You earned that role because you’re highly qualified. Because you have so much to bring to the table. Because you deserve it. In this blog post, we’ll dive into the intricacies of perfectionism, exploring its manifestations, uncovering its roots, and providing strategies to liberate yourself from its suffocating grip.

What is Perfectionism?

More than just the pursuit of excellence, Perfectionism is an unrelenting drive to achieve flawlessness, often driven by an overwhelming fear of failure. In leadership, this trait can manifest as an insidious force, impeding your growth instead of helping it, stifling your creativity, and hindering your overall well-being. Are you often putting unrealistic demands on yourself, afraid you’ll be seen as a complete and utter failure if you don’t accomplish everything you set out to do? It’s time to break free from the need to appear perfect, but first, let’s understand how perfectionism manifests. Do any of these behaviors resonate with you?

How Can Perfectionism Manifest?

Perfectionist behaviors often take various forms in leadership, from setting unrealistically high standards to micromanaging details. 

  • Do you find yourself constantly seeking validation? Maybe you find it hard to make big decisions for your department without asking others to weigh in. 
  • Do you have an aversion to delegating tasks because “you’re the only one that can do them right?”
  • Do you notice yourself being overly critical or constantly finding fault with other team members?
  • Does constructive feedback feel like a personal attack on you and everything you hold dear?
  • Are you an all-or-nothing type of person? Do you procrastinate on projects for fear of messing up or find yourself working long hours to ensure every last detail is exactly right?

Have you noticed any of these tendencies in yourself? If you have, it’s okay. Take a moment to recognize them and acknowledge that they exist. Now, let’s work to understand what causes these behaviors and how we can transform them to lead a team authentically without unnecessary pressure, guilt, or shame. 

What Causes Perfectionism?

It’s everyone’s favorite enemy: imposter syndrome. She comes in many different shapes and sizes; is breaking free from imposter syndrome possible? Transitioning to a new leadership role can trigger imposter syndrome, fueling the flames of perfectionism. As you step into this new role (maybe a role you didn’t even aspire to but were awarded based on your hard work), you start to feel the need to prove your worth and that you deserve this role. You are so much more than the “token black woman.”

This may be your dream job, but you had to move to a new city or state to take it. You’re far away from anyone who knows you, so you’re grappling with isolation. You want to make a good first impression on your new team and peers – you have this overwhelming need to appear perfect; otherwise, why are you really there? Isn’t there someone else who could do the role better than you? How can you start seeing yourself as a leader?

No. You were hired for a reason, and again, it’s not because you’re perfect. You are the best person for the job because of the education that you have, because of your perspective and authority. You’re capable of defeating this silent killer of confidence. Let’s talk about some strategies to overcome the perfectionism monster. 

How To Overcome Perfectionism:

1) Cultivate Self-Compassion: First and foremost, it’s time to start being kinder to ourselves. As women, we naturally hold ourselves to incredibly high expectations, especially compared to our male counterparts. Eliminate your harsh inner critic who says, “Only you can do it all” or “You have to be the best at everything.” It’s okay not to know everything. 

It’s time to embrace your imperfections and understand that these are what make your team whole. The goal is not to be the best at everything; it’s to fill in the gaps in your knowledge with team members and mentors who can offer expertise to fill those gaps and create a well-rounded team. 

2) Set Realistic Goals & Priorities: You’re leading a team. You’re guiding new people, whether peers, staff, or students. You would encourage them to set achievable goals, ensuring quality results rather than “perfect” ones. So why not do that for yourself as well? 

Start to understand your priorities and work towards achieving realistic goals that align with those priorities. And don’t be afraid to delegate. You cannot pour from an empty cup, and you cannot give your best self to your work if you’re burnt out. There are some things that only you can do – discover those and delegate the rest! 

3) Embrace Vulnerability & Seek Support: Vulnerability does not mean weakness. Admitting that you’re wrong or don’t know something doesn’t mean you’re unqualified for your leadership role. Just as you want to formulate a support network for your staff and students, do so for yourself. Seek guidance in the form of mentors, colleagues, and, in particular, a leadership coach who understands the unique challenges women of color face. 

Leadership Coaching: A Catalyst for Change

Breaking free from a vicious perfectionism cycle is hard to do on your own. This is a transformative journey that is best facilitated with the help of a coach. Through our uniquely designed coaching programs, women of color in higher education leadership roles can gain a fresh perspective on their challenges. This is where you start to see beyond the limitations imposed by perfectionism. 

A skilled coach helps build resilience, providing tools to navigate setbacks and learn from failures rather than viewing them as insurmountable obstacles or career-enders. Lead by Design Lab coaching fosters a growth mindset, encouraging you to embrace continuous learning and helping you see this journey as an evolutionary process rather than a quest for flawlessness. The ripple effect is profound: enhanced self-awareness, increased confidence, and the dismantling of the self-fulfilling prophecy that is perfectionism. It’s time to confidently delegate work to your team, give them the creative freedom they need to thrive, and lead authentically aligned with your values. Are you ready to redefine successful leadership and empower yourself on your leadership journey?

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