Leaders Set the Pace by Their Expectations and Example

Secrets of Leadership Success

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"Enlightened leadership is spiritual if we understand spirituality not as some kind of religious dogma or ideology but as the domain of awareness where we experience values like truth, goodness, beauty, love, and compassion, and also intuition, creativity, insight, and focused attention." - Deepak Chopra

"The speed of the leader determines the rate of the pack." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Leadership is a matter of having people look at you and gain confidence, seeing how you react. If you're in control, they're in control." - Tom Landry

Many years ago, an employee interviewed for what turned out to be her very first job managing people. She was naive and optimistic, a fact that must have amused the vice president of HR who interviewed her. She asked, “Why do you want to manage people?”

Her answer was something along the lines of, “I know a lot about this area and I feel like I can be a great mentor to people. I'm really excited to share what I know about HR data with others and build a great team.”

She laughed and said, “I'll tell you a secret. Managing people is a pain in the behind.” The employee was given the job anyway, and she started with a heart full of hope and a head full of ideas. But she was woefully unprepared to manage other humans.

Sure, she knew HR data like the back of her hand, but she hadn't ever had to exercise leadership skills as a manager before. She got off to a bumpy start, but then, through her own great manager as well as lots of trial and error, she learned how to lead.

One of the key points about leadership is that a leader sets the pace through expectations and example.

Setting the Pace

If you're always in a panic, jumping anytime someone says "boo" and constantly stressed out about accomplishing all of the work, your staff will experience stress as well.

One secret about work is that without meaning to, you can turn a reasonable workload into a complete nightmare of stress. Instead, as a leader, sit down and evaluate whether the pressure you are feeling is real or imagined.

Imagined pressure doesn't mean that you don't really have deadlines and clients (internal and external) that make unrealistic demands on your time. Imagined pressure means that you impose on yourself things that aren't necessary to get the job done. Sometimes, pressure actually goes away if you push back a little. 

If you've experienced a manager who was always frantic and constantly putting out fires, you know the affect this behavior has on employees. Everyone was stressed out, all of the time. But most of her pressure was imagined. She had the idea that she had to deliver right now for everything.

The reality was that the clients didn't need what she was demanding of her staff. One Friday, she came to her reporting staff at 4:30 and said that the Senior VP of HR needed this project as soon as possible. She estimated that the project would take about 4 hours of solid work, so everyone would have to work late.

Fortunately for her staff, the project description was missing a key piece of information, so they had to call the Senior VP's office and ask about that detail. While on the phone with her admin, the staff member  said, “When does she need this?” The response was, “Oh, she's presenting the information on Wednesday, so if I could have it by midday Tuesday, that would be great.”

It was imagined stress and pressure that the boss had placed on her staff and that her staff, in turn, was placing on their staff. They don't know why the boss made up an earlier deadline, as her staff had never missed deadlines, but they also don't know about the reliability of the other players on her team.

In this situation, they reduced the stress level by refusing to give into the frenetic pace. Instead, The staff checked client deadlines on their own and relayed the true information to their staff. The work was completed on time, with happy clients, and the work pace stayed manageable.

Setting Expectations

Do your employees know what you really expect and need from them? Do you sometimes say, “X is a priority.” and then come back later and ask why they haven't finished Y yet? Your expectations are off.

Setting expectations is actually easy if you remember to do it. Often you keep things in your head and assume the other person will automatically know what you need. So, instead of saying, “Can you finish up this report by the end of the day?” say, “Can you gather the sales data, put it into the same format as the Anderson report you did last week and ask Karen to proofread it for you?'

"I need to have this finalized report by 5:00 today, and I already told Karen to expect that report for proofreading by 4:00 at the latest. Does that work for you?”

See how that differs from “Just do it”? How would your employee know that you wanted a second pair of eyes to proofread the report if you didn't tell her? How would she know that you wanted her to use the Anderson format instead of the Jones format if you didn't tell her?

When you walk away from this assignment, expectations are set, and the employee knows what you need. You've also provided a chance for the employee to voice concerns.

It's far better to know that she's going to have trouble meeting the deadline 8 hours in advance than to be surprised when the report isn't completed on time. A true leader works within reality, and that sometimes means changing expectations.

Leading by Example

Do you gossip about your coworkers, bosses, and direct reports and then discipline your employees for doing the same? It doesn't provide a good example for employees. One of the best bosses observed was a master at leading by example. By watching her staff members learned how to run a meeting, how to handle an employee's personal crisis, and how to push back against unrealistic demands.

Do you want employees who get to work on time? You'd better show up on time. Do you want employees who are kind to customers? Don't talk about customers behind their backs. Do you want employees who do their work on time, with a high degree of accuracy? You'd best do the same.

Sometimes bosses forget that they need to demonstrate leadership as well. A boss can sit in an office barking orders, but a leader gets in there and helps with the work. For several years, a department was responsible for processing the annual salary increases for 30,000 employees.

That, alone, is a huge amount of work, but the staff had to take it one step further—every single one of those employees needed a piece of paper with their increase on it.  In addition, every single manager needed a list of their employees and the ultimately approved salary increase.

So that meant that staff had to stuff a ridiculous number of envelopes. Their direct boss was a vice president in a Fortune 100 company. Where was she during the envelope stuffing? Stuffing envelopes with the rest of her staff. Did they all jump when she told them to jump? You bet they did because they knew she was right there with them.

Now, while there are certainly times when a leader isn't doing the work with you (after all, you have different responsibilities), a true leader does unpleasant tasks when necessary and jumps in to help when it's feasible. Your example will shine through and you'll be rewarded with a loyal staff that works hard.

Characteristics of a Successful Leadership Style

Much is written about what makes successful leaders. This article series is focused on the characteristics, traits, and actions that are key in successful leadership.