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How Karaoke Taught Me a Lesson About Decision-Making, Leadership & Perfectionism

The more I pay attention to what makes good leaders, I see how trapped many of us are by our perfectionism without even realizing it.

An article published in the May/June 2017 Harvard Business Review reported the results of a ten-year study conducted by ghSmart’s CEO Genome Project in which they studied what makes CEOs successful. One of four behaviors is the ability to make decisions “with speed and conviction.” In fact, what they found is “High-performing CEOs understand that a wrong decision is often better than no decision at all.”

As someone who wallows in decision-making angst, this is tough to swallow. But I don’t have to look very far to see the impact that not making a decision—and sticking to it—has on the people around me.

Here’s a story to illustrate what I mean.

A few weeks ago I attended a friend’s 50th birthday party. After dinner it was time for karaoke in honor of the birthday boy who had performed in a super-select group of glee club members in college.

I sat at my table racking my brain to find a song we could all “sing.” Despite the former glee club and choir members at our table, we couldn’t decide on a song. All of them were rejected for one reason or another because, “Oh, no, you need a true tenor for that one,” or “I couldn’t do that song unless I’ve been practicing,” or, “I don’t know all the words and you have to know all the words to make it good.”

So I watched, envious of the people who had the guts to go sing.

I was intimidated. I didn’t want to look like a fool in front of these people I didn’t know. I didn’t want to be one of those people who looks stupid and doesn’t realize it.

In short, I didn’t want to fail at karaoke. Does that sound as ridiculous to you as it sounds to me?

We left without singing. We missed out because we couldn’t find the perfect song and were afraid of looking silly, when the whole point of karaoke is to look silly, right? But I chickened out. Completely. And I missed out. We all missed out. And that’s the saddest thing about perfectionism.

It stops us.

Perfectionism steals our dreams. It comes masked as “high standards and expectations.” But, when our standards and expectations stop us from moving forward, what good are those standards? When does the fear of making a mistake stop us from making any decision at all? That’s what I call perfectionism; when we are paralyzed and unable to take action.

Why is this a big deal?

Not only does it get in the way of our own progress and development, it also stops teams from moving forward and from performing. The HBR article I referenced earlier mentioned another interesting point.

“The highest-IQ executives we coach, those who relish intellectual complexity, sometimes struggle the most with decisiveness. While the quality of their decisions is often good, because of their pursuit of the perfect answer, they can take too long to make choices or set clear priorities — and their teams pay a high price. These smart but slow decision makers become bottlenecks, and their teams either grow frustrated or become overcautious themselves, stalling the entire enterprise.”

People leave organizations when they can’t move a project or initiative forward. I’ve seen it happen over and over. Staying stuck sucks the lifeblood out of everyone, and, it’s often the smartest people who have the hardest time making decisions.

Contrast my story above with this.

Jim Harbaugh, currently the head football coach of the University of Michigan has high standards. He’s consistently taken low-performing teams and turned them into winning teams by setting high expectations and standards.

Yet, those standards don’t stop him from making decisions.

A couple weeks ago, at the U of M’s Water Carnival, he was a judge of the cannonball contest. After watching others compete, he got up from the judge’s table and entered the contest. In a split second, he climbed the stairs of the 5-meter tower and jumped. Fully clothed.

The stands went wild. Everyone loved it. You can watch it here.

That’s leadership. Making a decision and taking action, regardless of how silly you might look.

What decision have you been putting off that’s creating a bottleneck? See what happens when if you make your decision and stick to it. C'mon, you can do it.

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