[November 30, 2020] “I’m giving you an opportunity to excel.” The Infantry Battalion Commander welcomed me to his unit with dry wit and a bit mysteriously. A commander is a special duty, one of great trust and honor. This particular commander had a reputation for perfection and was very conscientious about doing his job correctly.
A command selection board had chosen me, among others, to command a company of Infantrymen. I was warned early on that I might have to work for a commander who demanded flawless performance. Several selection board members had called me to wish me good luck and tell me about my new unit. The news was good, the unit’s reputation spotless, and their commander, a fine gentleman, originally from upstate New York.
Perhaps the news was too good to be true. Yes, the commander was good, but he was also overly perfectionist in making sure the job was done right the first time and every time. Looking back, I would judge him too conscientious.
What are some of the disadvantages of being too conscientious?:1
- Insisting that everything is flawless
- A strong need for perfection
- Intolerance for errors and mistakes
- Being unable to complete even simple tasks because they are never perfect enough
- Complete entrenchment in a view or belief
- Lack of flexibility
- Believing their way is the only acceptable method
It is challenging to work with someone with these traits. I cannot imagine having to live with someone like this either. A professional Soldier works around the clock under combat conditions and training for combat. It is expected everyone pulls their weight. Everyone is judged whether they contribute to conducting the unit’s mission and care for its Soldiers and equipment. A perfectionist personality makes this hard to tolerate.
Someone who has too much conscientiousness feels stressed and shows anxiety, anger, and frustration. Their relationships suffer, and they push away family, friends, and – in this example – they drive away their fellow teammates in the unit.
Too much conscientiousness is also associated with burnout, failure to act, and high-stress environments. Often, the person (like my new commander) appears successful and happy. On the inside, however, they are unhappy, often frustrated, and lonely. That is why commanders often say that “It’s lonely at the top.” They do so because those drawn to command positions rate high in conscientiousness.
To answer the question of whether a leader can be too conscientious, the answer is “yes.” Leaders should be willing to accept credible feedback on their performance. If done honestly and openly, a leader can learn enough to be more flexible and less prone to perfectionism. They will be happier, and I can say with confidence that those working for that commander will also be happier.
- This list is taken from an article by Eric Patterson in Choosing Therapy: https://www.choosingtherapy.com/conscientiousness/