Drive People Crazy with Impossibly High Standards

“When you lower the definition of success to such a level that any person can reach it, you don’t teach people to have big dreams; instead you inspirit mediocrity and nurture people’s inadequacies.” – Shannon Lee, martial artist/daughter of Bruce Lee

Recently, I had the great fortune to kick off a leadership training program for one of my client companies. We started by talking about the distinction between leaders and managers and I asked them to think about a leader who’d had a massive impact on their growth.

As they talked about their examples, all those leaders had belief in them, had pushed and challenged them, made time for them, listened to and supported them and, in the end, made them better and stronger.

But one participant had an example that really struck a chord, with the group, when he described how his older brother made the greatest impact, earlier in this life. He had led by example and set expectations for him that were incredibly high – very tough for him to achieve – and regularly called him out when he didn’t live up to them. You could see in his eyes that the experience wasn’t always pleasant or appreciated, but it had really lifted him to a much higher level of performance and achievement.

While this is one of the most powerful things that great leaders do, many aren’t able to master this skill because holding people to an impossibly high standard – and calling them out when they don’t reach it – creates a lot of tension and frustration and emotion. Most people find that exceptionally difficult.

But it’s that kind of tension that forces and helps people to really grow – especially when they know you believe in them and support them. The key is staying true to those high standards and constantly trying to push people to achieve for themselves.

I talk about this a lot in my book in Chapter 13 – Teach People to Meet Your Standards – but I love the twist that not only managers and co-workers can hold people to this very high bar – it can, like this example, be a family member.

In another recent meeting with a client, I saw one of the CEO’s direct reports almost double their performance in a six-month period – and I have to say I was humbled and awed. This executive had been working there for about three years and doing a good job, but with the addition of setting crystal-clear goals and 360 feedback every six months, the person rose to the challenge, and the results were unbelievable!

As a leader you owe it to people to set the bar high, with tangible goals and feedback (the most powerful feedback isn’t always just from you) – to give them the opportunity to step up to what’s possible for them – and treat them like they can. You never know who’s going to rise up, until you try.

The Challenge

  1. Think about people in your life: Who are you not holding to a high-enough standard when you know there’s a chance they can do it?
  2. In what area are you not holding yourself up to a higher standard, and who might help you to get there?