Leadership: What You Accept is the Standard

The CEO of the company I grew up in would often chastise employees for walking past a small scrap of paper on the floor. She knew you saw the debris and walked by it without making the little effort of throwing it away. She would confront the person directly, asking them to pick it up and throw it away. If you would ignore the environment, you’d ignore all kinds of other things. Her mindset was, “how you do anything is how you do everything.” In short, she believed that what you accept is the standard.

The Best Leader You’ve Ever Had.

Two things are true about the best leaders you’ve ever had, regardless of whether it was in business or sports or some other endeavor. There is no doubt that the leader who made the most significant impact on you personally saw something in you that you couldn’t see yourself. The revealed to you your potential and helped you realize it. It’s also true that they had standards higher than you would have set for yourself.

It would take many more paragraphs to develop a sketch of the worst leader you have ever had, but it’s likely they were self-oriented, political, fearful, and treated you like a means to an end. What is also true is that they didn’t help you recognize your potential, and they did not raise the standard.

Who You Are

The best leaders don’t focus on what you do as much as they focus on who you are. The standard they set is a way to set out the boundaries built on the idea “This is who we are.” The rule is identity, and identity is the standard. They compel their teams to live up to the standard. Good enough is not good enough. Only the standard will do.

Over time, the standard maintains itself. It becomes the norm. Over time, the measure becomes the culture, and the culture rejects anything less than the standard. However, that takes time, and it also takes a leader who will not accept something lower than the norm.

How the Standard Slips Away

The standard can suffer entropy. It can deteriorate over time—especially if it isn’t defended from threats.

  • Exceptions: Someone decides that the standard should be lower due to some particular circumstance. Soon after that, others recognize other exceptions. At some point, the exceptions are the new standard.
  • Looking the other way: A leader decides to ignore a few of the people who deviate from the standard. Others notice and choose to follow the lead of those who have abandoned the standard.
  • Lack of accountability: The accountability that was required to create the standard is no more. Because there is no accountability, the standard dissipates. If you don’t care enough to hold people accountable, why should they care enough to maintain the standard?
  • Sabotage: The standard can come under attack from the cynical, negative people on a team who surreptitiously work to convince others that the standard is too high or unnecessary altogether.

What You Accept Becomes the Standard

There is a story about an aide to then-Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. Kissinger asked for a paper on some issue, and the aide worked tirelessly to deliver an excellent paper. He left the draft on Kissinger’s desk, and later that day found it back on his own with a note that read: “You can do better.” The aide redoubled his efforts and did his best to improve the paper, only to find the article back on his desk with a similar note asking for his best work.

The aide worked the entire weekend writing the paper, starting over and did his very best work. Frustrated, he walked into Kissinger’s office and said, “Sir, this is the very best work I can do.” Kissinger replied, “Good. I’ll read it now.”

  • If you accept work that isn’t up to the standard you expect, what you accept becomes the new standard.
  • If you accept a performance less than what an individual is capable of, that level of performance is their standard.
  • The effort you accept from the people in your charge is the level they will exert in the future.
  • If you reject that which is not up to the standard, people will work to improve their work to meet the standard (something I suspect Kissinger knew).
  • Excepting people to perform up to a standard causes them to stretch to produce a better result.

I recently heard General James Mattis say that he expected 100% of the people in his charge, not 99%. You might want to believe that the 1% isn’t essential, but isn’t about the 1% as much as it is about the effort, the standard, and identity.

Raising the Standard

If you want to raise the standards, you have to go first by raising your standard. You have to increase your expectation of yourself as a leader. You have to commit to helping, coaching, and developing people so they can meet a higher standard. The work here is about the transformation from what you and your team are now and what you will become. This is why identity is such a powerful force.

The reason you remember the great teams you were a part of is because the standard was higher than you thought possible—and you and your teammates met it. It was special because you had to grow and struggle to achieve the standard, and then you had to work to maintain it. The fact that few others were willing to hold the standard was proof of its value.

If you think back the best leader you’ve ever had, they did not say, “You are perfectly mediocre just the way you are now. Don’t do anything to produce a better result, and don’t do anything to rock the boat. Whatever you do, don’t raise the standard yourself, lest people believe we are capable of more.”

What are your standards, and are they high enough to cause everyone to grow and turn in their best performance?

Filed under: Leadership

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