Where You Set the Bar in Leadership Matters

There’s an old adage that says you’re only as strong as your weakest link. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately and what it means for us in leadership. As much as we can set the standard for ourselves and for our team members, we truly have to think about how much impact those standards really have—how much weight they truly hold—when you have a weak link in the chain.

Not only does setting the bar matter, but how we set, communicate, and enforce these standards as leaders matters.

It’s not enough to set the bar. In leadership, we have to hold others to high standards of performance in ways that are both aspirational and effective. And I’m here to tell you how to do it.


4 Critical Stages in Setting Effective Standards in Leadership

1) Define your Standards

Before you can enforce the high standards to which you hold your team, you have to decide what those standards are. For you, setting those standards may be more difficult than you think. Remember this: a standard is not a goal. There are places that you want to be, skills that you want to develop, and a vision that you have for your team, company, or project: even for yourself. These are not where your standards lie.

Your standards are what you expect in the present. It is the minimum that you expect from people. It’s not what you should be doing six months from now, or something to grow in to. It’s what you expect each and every day. With this in mind, you can develop and set the bar.

There is a difference between a high standard and an unreasonable standard. You can expect a lot from people and a lot from yourself but you can also create standards that aren’t realistic. You want people to push themselves and to grow—but you also must have a realistic picture of what is possible.

Set a high bar, but be mindful of what is attainable and sustainable.

2) Communicate your Standards

Secondly, communicate. Your standards are non-negotiable. They aren’t goals or suggestions. They are your baseline minimum. These should not be standards explained once during the hiring process or tucked neatly away in your employee manual—they should be integrated and celebrated as a regular part of your team’s culture and experience. Part of this is ensuring not only that you are communicating the standards, but that they are communicated and maintained all the way down the chain of command. Are they clear? Concise?

If everyone knows what is expected of them, there is no room for error or excuses.

3) Enforce and coach the standards

Naturally, one has to enforce high standards. We hope for more from people, but there are some who, given the opportunity and lack of oversight, will see what they can get away with. It falls to leadership to ensure that standards of quality and work are met.

How do you enforce high standards? Part of this task is simply in being aware. Do you know what the work completed around you looks like, and what you’re signing off on? Pay attention to the quality that comes in. It’s easy to let things run on their own, but it takes intentionality to keep a watchful eye on everyone and everything around you. This isn’t to say you micromanage, but it is to say ensure that standards are met.

How will you know where the weakest link lies if you don’t even know what’s happening around you?

Beyond that, you have to coach the standards. Are you complimenting your team when they exceed the standards that have been set? Praising and rewarding hard work? Drawing correlations between quality and a promotion? You have to nurture not just the expectation of meeting standards, but flying high above them.

This, believe it or not, is where leaders fall short most—and it’s not necessarily because their team is slacking off.

4) Reflect your standards

Where many leaders falter is in rising to their own high standards. This usually isn’t for a lack of trying, but for a lack of perceived consequences. You aren’t at risk of losing your job, for example. However, failing to hold yourself or others to the same standards as everyone else will often cause your team to lose respect for you and make it that much harder to enforce performance standards of any caliber.

There can be no room for inconsistency, but instead, there must be encouragement, forward momentum, and a desire to excel. For you, setting the bar is not about expecting the bare minimum—it’s about bringing out the very best in yourself.

So ask, what am I truly capable of, and what do I want others to be capable of?

Your motivation matters when both setting the bar and in leaping over it. Ask yourself why the standard is set in the first place. Where is the standard coming from, and what motivates you, or anyone else to excel? Where and how you set the bar matters. It takes conscious effort and thought.

So go forth. Jump every bar that you set for yourself, and may you set every bar high.

Where do you think the balance lies between high standards and reasonable expectations? Share your thoughts in the comments.