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.
We are all familiar with “SMART” goals. 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.
 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.