Leaders Set the Pace Through 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

Many years ago, I interviewed for what turned out to be my very first job managing people. I was naive and optimistic, a fact which must have amused the vice president of HR who interviewed me.

She asked, “Why do you want to manage people?”

My 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, “Suzanne, I'll tell you a secret. Managing people is a pain in the behind.” I got the job anyway, and I started with a heart full of hope and a head full of ideas. But I was woefully unprepared to manage other humans.

Sure, I knew HR data like the back of my hand, but I hadn't ever had to exercise leadership skills as a manager before. I got off to a bumpy start, but then, through my own great manager as well as lots of trial and error, I 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 getting the job done. Sometimes, pressure actually goes away if you push back a little. 

I once had a manager who was always frantic and constantly putting out fires. 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 me 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 we'd all have to work late.

Fortunately for me, the project description was missing a key piece of information, so I had to call the Senior VP's office and ask about that detail. While I was on the phone with her admin, I said, “When does she need this?” The response I received 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 my boss had placed on me and that I, in turn, was placing on my staff. I don't know why my boss made up an earlier deadline, as my staff and I never missed deadlines, but I also don't know about the reliability of others on her team.

In this situation, I reduced the stress level by refusing to give into the frenetic pace. Instead, I checked client deadlines on my own and relayed the true information to my staff. We still got the work done on time, with happy clients, and our 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 we keep things in our heads and assume the other person will automatically know what we 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 done on time. A true leader works within reality, and that sometimes means changing things.

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 make for a good example. One of the best bosses I ever had was a master at leading by example. By watching her I 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 does the work. For several years, my department was responsible for processing the annual salary increases for 30,000 employees.

That, alone, is a huge amount of work, but we 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 increase.

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

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. I will focus on the characteristics, traits and actions that, I believe, are key.