Helen Green

Leaders Set Standards

Extraordinary leaders may get extraordinary results but what does it take in this day and age to be an extraordinary leader? In a time in which soft skills are an essential element of management practice and bold decisions are tempered with health & safety and equality considerations, leaders can be fooled into thinking that leadership equates with appeasement and “not upsetting x” becomes the order of the day.

But beware; the logical consequence of travelling along that route can only be stagnation in which the hum-drum effect of appeasement fills the mind with fluff until nothing is done, nothing achieved and the slow rot of decay tolls the death knell for the business. Step forward the extraordinary leaders.  They understand that soft skills are only one part of true leadership and that setting standards and helping employees to adhere to them is one of the essential elements of a great leader.

You make money if you have high standards and never compromise them. Winning organisations set high standards and are clear about the consequences of falling short – David Maister

Setting standards, modelling the way, is one of the fundamental principles of great leadership.  Yes leaders are expected to create the vision and map the future but they also need to articulate that vision and to share it with others. Witness the Leadership Practices Inventory in which question six asks us to consider the extent to which we ‘spend time and energy making certain that the people we work with adhere to the principles and standards we have agreed on?’

Bill Walsh, the legendary coach for the American Football Team, the San Francisco 49ers, believed it was vital for everybody in an organisation to deliver certain Standards of Performance. This was more important than striving for ‘winning’. He believed that, providing people consistently delivered the Standards of Performance, ‘the score took care of itself’. Did it work? Despite not focusing on ‘winning’, his team was hailed as a dynasty. He said:

The culture precedes positive results. It doesn’t get tacked on as an afterthought on the way to the victory stand. Champions behave like champions before they’re champions; they have a winning standard of performance before they are winners.

Here are some examples of the standards of performance that Bill Walsh encouraged his teams to live, every day, in their role:

  • Use positive language and have a positive attitude
  • Exhibit a ferocious and intelligently applied work ethic directed at continual improvement
  • Demonstrate character. Be fair and demonstrate respect for each person in the organisation and the work he or she does

Bill Walsh’s story is just one example of the way in which setting standards, having expectations, building a culture of high performance is key to delivering long term sustainable success. Great leaders understand this and as they model the way they also help team members to understand the key results areas and what their own individual contribution is expected to be.

On a note of caution, setting standards, sharing with the team and tracking progress is not just a one-off event and leaders who treat it as such or who over focus on results are in danger of falling into a trap of expectations which no-one can ever reach. Building a culture of high performance means providing opportunities for people to learn how to convert standards and expectations into personal habits and actions and it means living every day within the standards in pursuit of success.

Setting standards is not appeasement and it can require people to stretch themselves to step up to the mark, but it is a fundamental part of leadership and it is one which ultimately will benefit the organisation and everyone connected with it from suppliers and investors to customers and employees.  As W. Somerset Maugham once said:

It is a funny thing about life: If you refuse to accept anything but the best you very often get it.