Can a Leader be Too Conscientious?

By | November 30, 2020

[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.

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  1. This list is taken from an article by Eric Patterson in Choosing Therapy: https://www.choosingtherapy.com/conscientiousness/
Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

18 thoughts on “Can a Leader be Too Conscientious?

  1. Shawn C. Stolarz

    Yes, I do believe that a leader can be too conscientious. That is well documented and many of us have been on the receiving end of too much conscientiousness.

    Reply
  2. Albert Ayer

    “Conscientiousness is a fundamental personality trait—one of the Big Five—that reflects the tendency to be responsible, organized, hard-working, goal-directed, and to adhere to norms and rules. Like the other core personality factors, it has multiple facets; conscientiousness comprises self-control, industriousness, responsibility, and reliability.”
    https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/conscientiousness

    Reply
  3. Max Foster

    “It’s lonely at the top.” I always wondered how that saying came about. You are, indeed, lonely at the top when you are overly driven to get the mission accomplished regardless of the costs. Remember, as Gen. Satterfield has noted many times, that a leader must get the mission or task completed and take care of the people doing the job — all at the same time. That is what makes leadership difficult.

    Reply
    1. Watson Bell

      Excellent analysis and view. Thanks Max. Yes, Gen. Satterfield has made this clear, repeatedly. I believe he does so because too many people get fixated on one of these (mission OR people) rather than the right way (mission AND people). 😊

      Reply
    2. Jonathan B.

      Thanks Max. Well said. Never overlook this simple rule of leadership. Maybe Gen. Satterfield could write a book on the Rules of Leadership. This idea to do both task and people would be one of them.

      Reply
  4. Otto Z. Zuckermann

    The list of disadvantages is quite good. I once had a boss that was a perfectionist. Good in some ways but drove the rest of his team crazy with his demands.

    Reply
  5. JT Patterson

    Excellent article, Gen. Satterfield. Yes, a leader can be too conscientious. When any personality trait is overwhelming a balanced personality, then things tend to get a bit out of whack.

    Reply
    1. Eric Coda

      Balance is good. Extreme is bad. Just go to any mental facility and watch for a few hours to get a better feel for what a person looks like and acts like when their personalities are unbalanced. Why? No one really knows the answer, of course, but it does lend us an idea that we should each of us personally careful in our outlook on life and how we behave.

      Reply
  6. Tom Bushmaster

    Interesting that your thumbnail has “core values” on it so I assume it has something to do with conscientiousness. I would think, I presume, that this means values play a key role in determining how one’s motivations drive us to do good things.

    Reply
    1. Randy Goodman

      I think you’re right, Tom. Conscientiousness is the sparkplug that makes everything go. Values are what determine where we go.

      Reply
      1. Army Captain

        Connecting the dots again, fellows! I am surprise that Gen. Satterfield didn’t make the linkage explicit. Maybe he just forgot. Anyway, well done. Oh, welcome to Monday. For those working from home, hello and I hope your pajamas fit you well.

        Reply
        1. Ronny Fisher

          Good catch folks. I’m sure he meant to make the connection and simply ran out of time.

          Reply
    2. Gil Johnson

      Good question, Tom. Keep ’em coming our way. That is how we learn. Ask a question, get an answer, then determine if that answer is meaningful and gives you what you want.

      Reply

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