Leading the Unleadable
Taking a management job is not the same as answering the call to exceptional leadership. That’s what Alan Willett’s new book is all about: how to create a culture where people are able to perform in an extraordinary way.
Often new managers think that those following them are unengaged, cynical, or otherwise difficult. And that can be true, but many of these symptoms are a result of the manager not knowing how to lead, how to challenge, how to create team-wide expectations.
Alan Willett offers practical ways for managers to take on these challenges. Alan is the president of Oxseeker, a leadership consultancy with clients ranging from Oracle to NASA. His new book is Leading the Unleadable. I recently asked him about his work on exceptional leadership.
“Exceptional leaders have a personal, passionate mission that goes beyond results.” –Alan Willett
Set the Right Expectations
There are so many aspects of your book to discuss, but I want to focus on expectations. How important is the leader’s expectations?
It is amazing how even people that seem “defiant” are working to meet the expectations of the leader. When leaders are setting the wrong expectation it will have negative impacts – and the leader can do this without even knowing it.
I have seen many leaders consistently tell their teams that they want the “most aggressive schedule possible.” Of course the projects with the most aggressive schedule possible are invariably late. Along with being late, there are many negative aspects that can include quality problems and morale issues since team members feel they are failing. Many leaders who set these expectations later ask me, “Why are my teams always late?”
What the leader really wants in these situations is for the team to have the “smartest” plan possible and a commitment that the team can definitively meet or beat that plan. Setting those expectations correctly will get leaders who they really want.
“Exceptional leaders are fearless in setting expectations in clear language.” –Alan Willett
How a Leader Sets Goals
It seems that you can set the bar too low and not challenge the team or be “so positive” that you demotivate everyone. What’s the best way to set the goal appropriately?
Set clear motivating goals for the team, but also leave out some specifics, leave them a little vague. Then challenge the team to make it more specific and meaningful to them. In doing this the team members almost always grumble about the lack of precision. They then get to work to make the goals better. The team then creates the goals that are that high bar you refer to. Since the team set those specific goals, they are committed to achieving them.
I have worked this method with leaders over 300 times, and it never fails to inspire the team ownership and commitment. Leaders are often stunned at what the teams can really accomplish.