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The Gift of High Expectations

When I was a teenager my dad would take my brother and me backpacking in the mountains, and the three of us would disappear into the wilderness for days at a time. Living only on what we carried on our backs and traveling countless miles through rugged terrain, these trips were no picnic in the park. Regardless, I have fond memories from those experiences, including the life lessons along the way.

One of the lessons that stuck with me was the value of high expectations. Every time we arrived at a new campsite my dad would remind us, “Leave the campsite better than how you found it.” What that meant was he expected us to clean up after ourselves AND everyone else.

In full disclosure, there were moments when I hated hearing those words. Exhausted from hiking all day, the last thing I wanted to do was pick up other people’s junk. However, no matter how much I grumbled in the moment, I usually experienced a sense of satisfaction when our work was complete. It reminded me that we were part of something bigger, and it gave purpose to our being there. I still carry this ethos with me today and find myself, without even thinking about it, teaching the same lesson to my kids.

Expectations play a profound role in leadership. They telegraph everything about our beliefs and values. They are an integral part of how we create engagement and build high performing teams. Perhaps most important, high expectations are a gift we give to the important people in our life.

Unfortunately, we live in a culture of low expectations, and more and more I see leaders falling victim to the false belief that high expectations are uncaring, unfair, or even cruel. The results have been disastrous. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Exceptional leaders have high expectations for their people BECAUSE they care about them and want the best for them. Getting clarity on this point is essential.

High expectations connect us to something bigger.

“I expect a lot from you because what you do matters. You are an important part of what happens here.” This is the first message that comes through loud and clear when we communicate high expectations. As human beings, we all have the need for significance and meaning. We want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. High expectations are a way of connecting others to a higher purpose. They are a platform for talking about our mission and values. Every time we lower the bar, we are essentially saying what you do really does not matter to the mission. You are expendable.

High expectations communicate potential in others.

“I expect a lot from you because I believe in you. You are better than this.” That is the second message that comes through when we set the bar high. It is an aspirational message and a powerful one. Low expectations communicate just the opposite. Why else would you have low expectations for someone except that you have a low opinion of that person? Regardless of the intent, the unintended message of low expectations is disastrous. Human beings are hard-wired to want to use their gifts and talents, and it is the role of the leader to bring out their best.

High expectations lead to resilience and growth.

It is tempting to want to protect your people from struggle and failure. However, every time we do, we rob others of an opportunity to learn and grow through failure. We are communicating that it is not okay to fail. High expectations coupled with coaching create an environment where people feel safe taking healthy risks. Growth comes through stepping outside your comfort zone, which always includes risk of failure. High expectations paint a picture of what can be and form the basis for the accountability necessary for effective coaching. And when your people do fall short, it creates a rich opportunity to coach through the failure, turning it into a positive learning opportunity.

High expectations flow from values.

Our expectations are just the mirror image of what we value. Why did my dad ask us to pick up other people’s trash? Because being a good steward is a core value that he wanted to instill in us. Exceptional leaders set high expectations for their people because they care about them and want to see them flourish. They are crystal clear on their values, and their expectations for themselves and others reflect their convictions. These convictions are key to a leader’s influence – it is what inspires others to be better. Low or ambiguous expectations flow from a lack of clarity around what is important, foster mistrust, and create chaos and confusion.

High expectations are crucial for building a strong team.

The measure of a leader is the strength of the team. The leader’s job is to build a strong team by developing strong, confident team players. That only happens when a leader communicates high expectations and coaches to those expectations. This includes expectations for how team members work together to accomplish the mission.

I am not proposing unreasonable or arbitrary expectations here. Every one of your expectations should be within reach and have a compelling “why” behind it. They should also be aligned with your priorities, values, and the capabilities of your people.

Re-examining expectations.

First, high expectations are a gift we give to ourselves. There is nothing more miserable than a life without purpose. Low expectations for myself are the surest path to a stagnant life marked by complacency and apathy. Expectations stretch us to reach for something higher. They serve as guardrails to keep us on the right path and are a powerful catalyst for action. What expectations do you have for yourself? Are they high enough to stretch you to continually learn and grow?

Second, take a moment to reflect on your expectations for others. What is driving your expectations? Conviction and caring? Or fear and people pleasing? At the end of the day your people will rise to your expectations. If you have low expectations, that is where your people will live, and they will be miserable for it. If you have high expectations, your people will rise to those expectations, and they will eventually thank you for it.


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