Leadership requires more than just a good effort. Intensity of effort and high standards for self and others are essential qualities. As a leader, it is your job to model the energy, adaptability and intelligence required to “take the hill.” When others might give up or settle for average, you and your team will not.
These lessons can be learned early. One of my mom’s favorite phrases when I was tempted to do a less-than-stellar job was, “Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.” (Like many moms, mine is wise and eloquent.) That meant the dirty clothes were to be in the laundry hamper, not near it, and dishes were actually supposed to be clean before dried and put away (in the right spot, thank you very much).
What does this have to do with leaders? It means that ordinary isn’t good enough, and that great is expected. In fact, it seems that a strong-but-flawed leader is better than the bland version, as long as the leader’s defects are manageable. The danger of being only an adequate leader is that you will fail to set the bar high when it matters most. Some of these areas are:
Integrity. Once it’s breached, integrity is very hard, if not impossible, to get back. Personal and organizational integrity are the linchpins of success. There can be no good in these areas, only great, for you, your team and your organization.
Safety. You may think that your industry isn’t particularly dangerous. And yet it only takes one incident involving an employee, customer or community member to ruin your reputation, maybe forever. Even if you’re not governed by safety regulations, you must set the bar high and establish a culture where safety is a top priority and is continually improving.
Customer value proposition. Customers are only loyal as long as you’re providing value that can’t be found elsewhere. To keep customers, you must provide continual improvement over time, never assuming that your past WOWs will keep customers coming back. Leaders must ensure that employees don’t back off, especially after they’ve provided very high value. The temptation to lower standards and take a break must be overcome if you are to keep that customer happy.
Organizational culture. First, never settle for “okay” when you’re hiring. Failure to do so is the equivalent of peeing in your own soup, as a recent BNET blog post noted. Look for people who share your vision and are committed to your ideals. Once you’ve brought that amazing person on board, hold her accountable for the right things – the organization’s mission, vision and values, and give free reign to ingenuity and creativity. Before you know it, your people will be creating value you had not yet imagined.
While setting high standards for behavior doesn’t mean you’ll always be successful, that does not mean that those benchmarks are negotiable. Failure to achieve high standards requires a disciplined and honest look at why it happened and what safeguards must be put in place to ensure it does not recur.
Establishing high benchmarks is really a gift to yourself and others. Remember the words of Hamilton Wright Mabie, “The mother loves her child most divinely, not when she surrounds him with comfort and anticipates his wants, but when she resolutely holds him to the highest standards and is content with nothing less than his best.”
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