For the last three weeks we’ve been looking at the role that setting standards plays in the leader’s effort to set direction. We started off with wise words from Colonel Art Athens. We spent the next two weeks looking at four truths about setting standards.
This wouldn’t be The Aperio if we didn’t look under the hood to see the truth about what drives leaders to set standards. To do so, we must look below our actions and into our…(dramatic pause)…motives (audible gasp).
What you’re about to read will not surprise your mind. It may, however, challenge your heart. (But only if you have the courage to let it.)
Really Bad Reasons for Leaders to Set Standards
Despite the fact that we’ve spent the last three weeks making a case for the value of setting standards, there are a few really bad motives for doing so. Do any of these tempt you?
Looking Good We live in an amazing and crazy age. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and the like have invited the entire planet to be focused on image management. Just like the invention of the mirror in 1835, these electronic inventions beckon people across the globe to be constantly conscious of their images. Never before in human history have we been so tempted to be so aware of what others think about us. For leaders this can create an alluring and unholy motive for setting standards. When we drive those we lead toward the highest of standards so that we — either the group we lead or ourselves as individual leaders — will look good, we are actually driving people to higher standards for our own benefit. When we do so, we are being selfish.
Selfishness has never made it on to the list of “Top Qualities We Love in Our Leaders” and it never will. Sure, we can make the case that setting standards produces good things for all involved, but that argument doesn’t change the reality that some of us need to be more honest with ourselves about our motives. For some of us, the drive to set standards is mostly about our desire to look good in front of others. Followers may long-suffer for a good cause, but shortcomings within the leader's ego don’t qualify as such a cause. Setting standards for those we lead in order to sooth our egos will eventually backfire as our followers come to learn we are actually in it for ourselves.
Taking the Power Trip For some the call to set standards is the siren’s song for a power trip. For this group of leaders, setting high standards comes down to enjoying the rush of getting to call the shots and then enforcing them. Just as the need to look good doesn't endear followers to their leaders over the long haul, neither does setting standards for the sake of getting to exercise power. If we do this, our followers will feel it over time and the energy for rising up to meet higher standards will wane…or those followers will just quit and find other, more worthwhile leaders to follow. Just like the need to look good is self-centered, so too is using standards as a means to feel powerful.
The Need to Achieve Some of us simply can’t stop achieving. We’ve defined our lives by non-stop striving for perfection and maximization. Though much in the world has been accomplished through this motive, it is not a long-term winner for keeping followers as we set and raise standards. Even if we don’t intend it to be, this drive within the leader is ultimately self-focused.
Many years ago I had a leader whom I respected say, “Slow down, Tim. You don’t have anything to prove.” I remember bristling at the instruction. In my mind, I wasn’t trying to prove anything. But if I’d been a bit more mature to pause on his words, I might have seen that some of the vigor I was using to push for higher standards was coming out of my own personal need to achieve. In doing so, I was self-centered and unnecessarily alienated some of the followers I was attempting to lead. A “progress not perfection” mentality would have more effectively served our endeavors and my relationships with those I was leading.
Really Good Reasons for Leaders to Set Standards
Just as there are some really bad motives for setting standards, there are a couple of pretty great ones as well. See if either of these resonates with you.
For the Good of the Cause People, in general, like to be a part of something bigger than themselves. They want their work to have purpose. They want to matter. If you desire to raise standards for the sake of the cause or constituents you serve, your internal motives can actually be motivating to those you lead. When followers see that your motive for raising standards is about serving others well -- even when there’s nothing particularly beneficial to you personally in that effort -- they will be far more likely to respect you and jump on board. Such motives within leaders inspire the ‘want to’ within followers and draw them into a story bigger than their own. When leaders' motives are about serving and taking care of others, they have the credibility needed to ask a great deal from their followers, including the raising and maintaining of standards.
For the Good of Your Followers Have you ever seen potential in some of your followers that they didn’t see in themselves? Have you ever had the thought, “With just a little more rigor, this follower’s potential is going to be realized.” If so, you’ve struck upon a positive motive for leaders to set standards. If one of your ultimate desires is to see those you lead reach their potential for their own benefit, setting and raising standards to help them get there is a motive to be embraced. If you are driven to set standards because of the growth it will bring to those you lead, you are being driven by a motive worth keeping.
The Trickle Down Effect of Healthy Hearts
When it comes to the motives that drive us as leaders to set, raise, and reinforce standards, most of us are a mixed bag. We have both healthy and unhealthy motives within us. The solution to managing this reality is having enough courage to honestly look at what lives within us to identify the places where our motives are less than pure. When we do that, we give ourselves a fighting chance to lead well. When we exercise the discipline to lean into the best of our motives and the courage to acknowledge the worst of our motives, we are doing the hard work of reaching our leadership potential.
Shifting our focus away from self-centered motives to more selfless motives helps followers align not only their actions but also their hearts with the standards that are being set. When that happens, setting standards becomes a truly powerful leadership weapon.
Next week will be our final week in this series about setting standards. We’ll stay in deep-dive mode by looking at our reactions to violated standards and how to deal with the fears we create within our followers when we hold the line on standards.
Share Your Thoughts:Which of the “Really Bad Reasons” most challenges you as a leader? Which of the “Really Good Reasons” is easiest for you to see in yourself? Tell us about it. We’d love to hear from you. Join the conversation by clicking here.
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