Take It to the Limit?

How fast can a person ride on a bicycle? How fast have you gone on a bicycle? I know I’ve broken 50mph (downhill, of course).

In September 2016, Denise Mueller set a new women’s bicycle speed record, 147mph.[1] And she felt that if she had a course two miles longer, she could have beaten the men’s record. Was your top estimate anywhere close to that? I haven’t even gone that fast in a car!

High speed bike

Denise did not place any artificial limits on her potential as she trained. She had realistic goals, proper equipment, and a team that supported her. At the same time, there were certainly risks involved. We can probably draw some leadership lessons from the lead car. I’ll save those for another post.

The Bike

As leaders, we continually set goals for ourselves and for our teams. Our chief aim is continued improvement: we want our performance to become better over time. But are we ever guilty of aiming too low, and holding our team back?

We know that greater expectations lead to improved performance. But have you ever had a leader who tried to limit your expectations? It can be a frustrating experience.

Yes, as leaders, we must help our teams set realistic goals; but this doesn’t mean that we should place artificial limits on our talented team members. We may have some record-breaking talent, but if we restrain them, they will never have a chance to break records.

Mark Sanborn discusses that the human tendency is to limit our disappointments by limiting our expectations.[2] If we expect too much, we will frequently become disappointed. But disappointment rarely follows low expectations.

Sanborn says: “One of the keys to continual improvement is the willingness to risk disappointment, to see disappointment not as a bad thing to be avoided but as proof positive we are aiming higher and striving to get better.”[3] He concludes that highly successful people are more often disappointed than are other people. Why are they successful? They don’t let their disappointments slow them down, or hold them back.

As leaders, we should feel empowered to help our teams become better than their best. We must remember that this improvement is incremental. Elite Olympians don’t double their performance overnight. Frequently their coached improvements come as tenths of seconds are shaved off from their best times.

As leaders and coaches in other fields, we might ask these questions:

  1. What are the best metrics for evaluating your team’s performance? Hint: it is rarely money.
  2. What degree of improvement is appropriate for the tasks performed by your team? Remember the Olympians: the increments should be appropriate for the task and the team.
  3. What type of motivation is most appropriate for your team, including rewards for achieving the objectives? Sometimes a simple “thank you” is sufficient; other times it will be grossly inadequate. On the other hand, if you feel you must hover over your team and crack a whip over them, you will need to examine your “motivational” techniques.
  4. What is an appropriate time frame? It is important to balance the potential for disappointment with the potential for growth, and create a realistic time frame.
  5. Are you risking your own job by risking disappointment? This is a difficult situation for a leader: you may need to temper your risks, but don’t eliminate them.

Now some personal questions from Sanborn[4]:

  1. How do you imagine yourself becoming better than you already are?
  2. How do you overcome the limitation of your experiences?

You cannot help your team grow if you are not growing yourself. Coach Lou Holtz is fond of saying “You are either growing or you are dying.” Choose growth.

A good leader enables his team to become better than their best by setting them up to excel.

Pictures courtesy of Project Speed, via Velo News

[1] For details on how she did it, follow this link: http://www.velonews.com/2016/09/news/ca-woman-rides-her-bicycle-147-mph-a-new-world-record_420507#2gpxGMoWiLSm285y.99.

[2] Sanborn, M. The Potential Principle, p. 9. 2017.

[3] Ibid., p. 9.

[4] Ibid., p. 9.


Presidential BHAG’s

Footprint on moonAs I reflect on those who have served as President of the United States in my lifetime, there have been the good, the great, the mediocre, and the others. The perspective of history will sort that out.

An unspoken expectation is for each President to lead the nation. While each led in some manner, some exhibited strong leadership skills; others were weaker.

We have had the opportunity to visit the Presidential Libraries of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and while at each one, my thoughts were drawn to President John F. Kennedy. He did something that none of his successors have done, and honestly may not do again. What did he do? He challenged the people of the U.S. to meet a difficult goal. This challenge unified the nation, and we ultimately succeeded.

This challenge was extended to a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961. Said Kennedy: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”[i]Mecury-Atlas 4

A good leader gives challenges that help his people grow. There are elements to his challenge that leaders can draw from.

  1. Kennedy did his homework. He had some background knowledge. He gave specifics in his challenge. He had an estimate of the costs involved, and was aware of the technology that existed as well as what was needed.
  2. Kennedy knew he could not accomplish this on his own. In fact he lacked the skills required to execute the actions he was proposing. He empowered those who had the necessary skills and challenged: “every scientist, every engineer, every serviceman, every technician, contractor, and civil servant” to give “his personal pledge that this nation will move forward, with the full speed of freedom, in the exciting adventure of space.”[ii] He urged Congress to provide them with the resources to do what he asked.Apollo 11 engineers
  3. He provided a unifying rationale. “Now it is time to take longer strides–time for a great new American enterprise–time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth.”[iii] Remember that this was in response to the Soviet Union developing manned space capabilities, in connection with the Cold War.
  4. He set a deadline for the project. The time frame was demanding, and the goal was not a simple one. But this created a sense of urgency, and work began immediately, and continued in spite of disappointments and disasters. He said that the “risk enhances our stature.”[iv]
  5. He created a spirit of competition. And then he said it wasn’t exactly a competition: “This is not merely a race. Space is open to us now; and our eagerness to share its meaning is not governed by the efforts of others.”[v] This served to motivate everyone involved. And all Americans were involved, in one way or another.Gemini 7 rendezvous with Gemini 6
  6. Kennedy appealed to our patriotism, our “team spirit.” In a speech at Rice University in 1962 which served as an update on progress (another important element) and an announcement of what would become “Mission Control” in Houston, he said: “The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space.”[vi]
  7. He asked for a firm commitment. This is absolutely critical in achieving a goal, especially an overwhelming goal like Kennedy’s. “Let it be clear that I am asking the Congress and the country to accept a firm commitment to a new course of action, a course which will last for many years and carry very heavy costs.”[vii] There was absolute transparency in his request, long before we started demanding transparency of our leaders.Apollo 14 launch
  8. Finally, he issued a call to action, and a request for all to make the necessary sacrifices to achieve this goal. He knew this was a hard thing to do, and asked us to do it because we do hard things.

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”[viii] He continued, “Space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”[ix]

Armstrong descends ladder

What was amazing to me as a child now seems somewhat commonplace to most people. There were 135 Space Shuttle missions, and numerous trips to the International Space Station that no longer capture the imagination of the public. But this would not have become so ordinary if President Kennedy had not set his BHAG[x] in motion.

A good leader gives challenges that inspire his people to stretch and grow; a great leader gives challenges that unify and motivate.


Special thanks to NASA for the images from the gallery at https://images.nasa.gov.


[i] Speech before a Joint Session of Congress, 25 May 1961. https://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/Research-Aids/JFK-Speeches/United-States-Congress-Special-Message_19610525.aspx

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid. Many of the technologies we take for granted were developed for the space program and later found use in civilian life. Examples include personal computers, microwave ovens, freeze-dried ice cream, and even the satellite systems we rely on for weather and for locating ourselves.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Speech at Rice University, 12 September 1962. https://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/Research-Aids/JFK-Speeches/Rice-University_19620912.aspx

[vii] Speech before a Joint Session of Congress, op cit. Remember that he proposing an expenditure of $7-9 billion per year on this project, a fittingly astronomical amount for 1961. At Rice, he proposed an expenditure of $.50 per week for every man, woman and child in the U.S. to continue this endeavor.

[viii] Speech at Rice University, op cit.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Big Hairy Audacious Goal. This idea came from the book, “Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies” by James Collins and Jerry Porras. Their acronym refers to a long-term, usually large-scale goal that changes the very nature of an organization.

Facilitating Achievement through Setting Goals — Together

Missing the mark

Good leaders set good goals: for themselves as well as for their subordinates. But exceptional leaders set good goals with their subordinates, then help them to achieve these goals. How often do we put that into practice?

Several years ago, as a “middle manager,” I met with my supervisor for my annual review. I was told that my leadership style was too “laid back.” His suggested goal for me? “Be proactive.” I asked him for clarification. His response? “Just be more proactive.”

With this direction in mind, I made an effort to use his vague advice by being more proactive with my people. The only problem was that my idea of proactivity and his did not coincide. I was unknowingly aiming at the wrong targets. This was not made clear until a year later. But the specific targets were not defined; instead, I continued to hear “be more proactive.”

Along with the nonspecific direction, he also gave the impression that I was failing in my responsibilities because I couldn’t meet his vaguely described expectations. I was being set up for failure, and I’m not certain that it was intentional.

A good leader should take a cooperative approach to goal-setting for his direct reports; in doing this, he becomes a facilitator. It is helpful to remember the Latin root of facilitate is facilis: to make easier. Specific goals should be suggested, and resources identified and provided that can assist in achieving those goals.

Good goals are well-defined, have a timeline, and should be measurable. Ambiguous goals will lead to poor outcomes. And as leaders, we should ask ourselves regularly: “Am I making it easier for my direct reports to achieve our mutual goals?” If I am standing in their way, then I cease to be a leader.

On target

We are all familiar with “SMART” goals.[1] This sometimes seems trite, but the principles are sound. If your approach is based on sound principles, it has greater potential for success. Call the goals what you want, but SMART goals really are smart. In general, goals should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely.

I want to inject a side note here. Inject some positive feedback into your evaluations and reviews. Dale Carnegie reminded us to be “hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise.” Even the poorest performance has something praiseworthy in it. Sincere praise can be an effective way to promote improved performance. One of my high school English teachers used to write “Noble Effort” on the essays that didn’t measure up. I have not forgotten that.

Remember, we are leading people. Look for the good and praise it. Support them at every opportunity. Help them to see their value to your organization; help them to see their worth as individuals.


[1] Doran, G. T. (1981). There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives. Management Review, Volume 70, Issue 11(AMA FORUM), pp. 35-36.

If I Could See Clearly Now

A good leader sets clear expectations.

One of the challenges of leadership is in motivating others to achieve goals. But this is essential in making progress in your organization. It is especially important that the two people be on the same page as they work together. Brian Tracy said “Whatever we expect with confidence becomes our own self-fulfilling prophecy.” With that in mind, why would a good leader fail to share his expectations with those who report to him?

Some things are critical to your success.

  1. Set specific, relevant goals. Vague goals do not help anyone achieve the desired end. I have written before about the time during an annual review when a supervisor told me I needed to be more proactive. When I asked for clarification so I knew what to focus on, I was told “just be more proactive.” I pursued that goal for a year, but not in the direction my supervisor had wanted. I still don’t know exactly what was wanted.
  2. Set deadlines and checkpoints. A good goal must have a target date. And frequently there are intermediate steps that should be checked. Sometimes it is just good to have a progress check. These should be discussed together so that expectations are clear. There is nothing worse than being called in to account for progress on a goal without warning, and being chastised because you are not on track. Just as runners measure their split times at given points, leaders must also take measure periodically and give meaningful feedback to their team members.
  3. Make sure that the metrics for measuring progress are clearly understood. Thomas S. Monson has said “Where performance is measured, performance improves. Where performance is measured and reported, the rate of improvement accelerates.” But both sides must be using the same measuring stick. I was once called out (at an unscheduled checkpoint) for falling short on a goal. By the measurements I used, the numbers had doubled from the previous year; I thought I was making good progress. But that wasn’t how my supervisor saw it. Be clear on what you are measuring and how you will measure it.
  4. Praise progress, and don’t focus on shortcomings. Dale Carnegie taught to begin with praise and honest appreciation, then to call attention to people’s mistakes indirectly. The phrase that has stuck with me for 40 years is “Be hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise.” He also suggested that the leader give the other person a fine reputation to live up to.
  5. Never ever blindside anyone in an evaluation, not even in a crisis situation. This goes along with the clearly defined checkpoints and clear metrics. If you must call an additional intermediate meeting, give the individual some indication of what will be discussed (maybe not if you are firing the individual with cause). If he or she can prepare, the meeting will more productive for both of you.

John Akers said: “Set your expectations high; find men and women whose integrity and values you respect; get their agreement on a course of action; and give them your ultimate trust.”

Isn’t that a significant part of leadership? We must show trust as well as earn it. In setting clear expectations of others we are doing both.

Have clear expectations, and make them known!

The Resolution Not Written (is only a wish)

The New Year symbolizes a new beginning. Even though nothing has actually changed: Thursday follows Wednesday just as in any other week. But the New Year can motivate each of us to make needed changes in our lives. Without this perceived change we would lack that motivation.

New Year’s resolutions date back to Roman times, when vows were made to the god Janus (January’s namesake) to be kinder to others, in return for success in the coming year. I am not aware of how well this worked. Some say the origin of making New Year’s resolutions rests with the Babylonians, who reportedly made promises to the gods in hopes they’d earn good favor in the coming year. They often resolved to get out of debt (sound familiar?).

In America, the Puritans encouraged their children to skip the parties and spend their time reflecting on the old year and contemplating the new year. Like the Romans, the resolutions were mostly of a moral nature. This habit became engrained in American tradition, particularly the Protestant ethic, and survives to this day. However, the nature of the resolutions has changed over the years.

I have never been a big fan of New Year’s resolutions. The general attitude is that they are made just to be broken, and what’s the sense in that? In January, the gyms are full for a few weeks, then the crowds taper off. In like manner, the restaurants with good salad bars are also crowded in January. People desire to make the desired changes, but lack the willpower to continue once the original motivation fades.

My habit has been to set goals around my birthday each year (another somewhat arbitrary change that we measure) and review and revise them at New Years. That has worked best for me.

I recently ran across a blog post from Chris Taylor, entitled Planning to Plan. Chris has successfully used his “Annual Planning Review” for a number of years. You can link to it through his post, which you will find at http://www.actionablebooks.com/en-ca/blog/planning-to-plan/ . I feel that this is one of the best descriptions I have seen on how to set goals for personal improvement. And it applies to business and other goals as well.

Chris breaks the process down into three steps: 1) Reflect; 2) Visualize; and 3) Plan. Then he discusses the “what” and “why” of each step.

Of course, this requires some time: ideally some quiet time. That isn’t always easy to find. But look at it this way: every investment has a cost; that cannot be avoided. Setting goals is an investment in yourself. With the investment of a little time on a regular basis, you can put yourself on the path to achieving your goals and dreams. And when you reevaluate, you can make sure you are still on the right path.

Stephen Covey’s seventh habit is Sharpening the Saw. He explained that as we renew ourselves, we create growth and change in our lives, and increase our capacity to cope with the challenges that confront us. So skip a bowl game and do something will provide a greater benefit to you. Honestly, six months from now will it make a difference that you watched the Cheapo Depot Consolation Bowl and Half-Time Show on January 2nd?

As a leader, your greatest asset is you. If you won’t invest in yourself, don’t expect anyone else to. Make time for self-evaluation and self-improvement. It doesn’t matter when you reflect, visualize, and plan; what matters is that you do it consistently.