Setting leadership goals

When people describe an extraordinary experience at work, most of the time this experience involves an objective that was extremely challen...

When people describe an extraordinary experience at work, most of the time this experience involves an objective that was extremely challenging and complex. Often the leadership goals were so challenging that they were not certain that it could be accomplished. People often relate a fascinating story that describes how they applied their good leadership skills, knowledge, and experience together with hard work. Add to that some luck, and the leadership goal was accomplished. If you ask people about their work satisfaction during this difficult but extraordinary experience, they invariably describe this as a time when they were extremely satisfied. They go on to describe it as a time when they were extremely productive. If you ask them how they felt about themselves during the experience, the answer is that they felt confident, self-assured, positive, and enthusiastic. If you ask them about their work-life balance during this period, many say that it was out of balance from the perspective of personal time, but that this didn’t seem to matter that much because when they were not working, they felt so good about what they were accomplishing professionally that it made what personal time they had better as well.

leadership goals

Over the last few years, this paradox has become very clear to us: while many people tend to resist taking on difficult, challenging assignments, they are most happy and fulfilled when they accomplish a stretch goal. The bottom line seems to be that if you want to make people feel extremely fulfilled, give them challenging work in which they can be successful.

When you think about the backbreaking pace that many people endure at work and ask these people what they would prefer to be doing, they talk about the beach, relaxation, or “chilling out.” But rest and relaxation, while fulfilling for a short time, eventually lead people to boredom. The vacation we remember the most is seldom the one in which we sat and did nothing. Leaders who can get their team members to take on challenging and difficult assignments that can be accomplished end up with team members who are the most highly satisfied, productive, and fulfilled.

How to be a good leader?? The formula here is that leaders who can get people to take on challenging assignments at which they can be successful will have team members who are highly satisfied and more productive. This, in turn, helps the leader to be viewed as more inspirational. This is a self-perpetuating cycle of leadership qualities.


Inspirational leaders believe that the organization is capable of producing at a higher level than it is at the current time. Jack Welch often observed about human performance that “there’s no end to the juice in that lemon.” The truth of the matter is that when there is a crisis or when some event triggers it, groups nearly always become capable of performing at a much higher level.

Look at the scoring pattern in most athletic contests. The number of points scored in the final minutes of a football game is enormously higher than during any other period. People rise to the occasion when they are highly motivated.

Along with a belief that the group can produce more, the leader must also be discontented with the status quo. For whatever reasons, the leader must feel a strong need for things to change. It could be because of a new competitor. It could be because the leader believes that more difficult times are coming in the economy. Or it could be that the leader recognizes that because it can be done, it should be done. Period.


Our research revealed some specific actions that leaders engaged in to set lofty leadership goals.

At the Core of Setting Lofty Leadership Goals Are the Leader’s Courage and Willingness to Take On Risk When leaders consider setting a lofty, difficult stretch leadership goals, many of them will have an unpleasant feeling deep in the pit of their stomach.

Thoughts will come to their mind, including:
  • This is not a 100 percent sure thing.
  • I will be taking a personal risk.
  • No one has done this before.
  • What is going to happen if it fails?
  • Can I get the team to accept this challenge?
While it is difficult to teach people to have more courage, we want to acknowledge that courage is a fundamental part of the process. Setting lofty leadership goals will never be easy and will never be without some risk. We can, however, provide two assurances. First, we know that people invariably have a lot more that they can give.

One study estimated that on average, employees waste 1.44 hours each day on nonproductive activities.1 Beyond that, employees who just go through the motions in doing their job never produce the kind of superior results that they are capable of producing. In a study of more than 100,000 employees who were asked if their work environment encouraged people to “go the extra mile,” only 29 percent of the employees strongly agreed, and 26 percent responded to that question with a neutral or negative reply. (This is instructive, because the question simply asked if the work environment encouraged that type of behavior. It didn’t ask if people actually went the extra mile.) That analysis indicates that at least a quarter of employees go through the motions each day but are not highly committed to putting forth their best efforts.

While discussing this observation in many different companies, we have found a consistent reaction. The first reaction that people have is often skepticism. It simply sounds too good to be true. But, after they consider their people costs, their profit margin, and the fact that most of the time an increase in employee productivity would not add any additional cost, they come to the same conclusion. You can almost hear them say in unison, “It would all go to the bottom line.” While many lofty leadership goals seem like a great deal of effort, a little bit of effort from a lot of people often gets those leadership goals accomplished.

Have the Confidence to Get Team Members to Embrace a New Reality

People determine their own limitations and expectations. People with leadership traits who are working with a team with the aim of having the team members embrace a stretch goal need to approach that process with a great deal of energy and commitment. Any hesitation or doubt on the part of the leader can quickly open the door to a mutiny. After discussing stretch goals with a number of leaders, it has become clear to us that while their public persona displayed incredible confidence, the goal was often determined by an educated guess.

Pete was in charge of an effort to downsize a large manufacturing organization. While the company was still profitable, margins were slipping, raw materials costs were increasing, and competition was making it impossible for the company to raise prices. A small group of senior managers met to discuss the downsizing goal. The accountants indicated that 12 percent of the cost needed to be taken out in order to retain the desired level of productivity. Pete asked for one week to study this issue and return with a decision.

In a week Pete returned to the meeting. He said that after looking at a great deal of data and having numerous discussions, he had determined that the goal for the downsizing was 25 percent. You could hear people gasp. In unison people said, “That’s impossible you’ll destroy the business.” Pete took on all the questions. He remained calm but totally committed to 25 percent.

Over the next three months, Pete met with group after group who said that 25 percent was impossible, but he simply sent them back and asked them to sharpen their pencils. No group escaped the reduction. By four months, every group in the company had figured out a way to accomplish its goal. The downsizing went smoothly, and Pete was a real hero. In an interview a year after the event, Pete was asked how he determined the number. “It was my best guess,” he replied. “I knew that we had it in many places, and I knew that whatever the number was, no group would give me more than that number. So, after thinking about it for several days, I just decided that we could do 25 percent. I figured that if that was too much, someone would convince me that I was wrong, and that never happened.”

Involvement Is the Key to Raising the Bar

One of the most important leadership characteristics is that somehow the leader must raise the bar. There are many ways to do that. One approach is illustrated by the sales manager who calls a salesperson into the office and simply announces that the quota for that territory is being increased by 20 percent. The sales manager may then give some rationale for that, such as increasing prices, expansion of clients, or changes in the economy all in an attempt to make the salesperson accept and feel good about the new quota. But this approach is fundamentally unilateral. Is that a good approach?

The American Productivity Council reports that only 2.5 percent of companies surveyed believed that management-initiated changes were the most important source of improved performance. On the other hand, 62 percent identified employees as the most important source of those ideas. To have the employees become the source of the ideas, the leader would have to behave in an extremely different manner. Here’s an example.

The sales manager could meet with the salesperson regarding the need to arrive at a new quota for the coming year. This discussion might begin with a review together of the available data and with the sales manager seeking the salesperson’s ideas. (All this assumes that raising the target for the salesperson doesn’t have a negative financial impact on him. If it does have a negative impact, there will nearly always be greater resistance.)

Is this always a better approach? We suspect it depends on many factors. The high school swimming coach who has her young swimmers swim 20 laps in an Olympic-sized pool on the first day of practice is setting the bar at a higher level than most high school students would have chosen for themselves. In some circumstances, the leader may be required to raise the bar in a somewhat unilateral way. That continues through much of high school and college. Teachers and professors believe students to be capable of doing things that most of the students would find hard to believe.

The Fremont Swim Club in northern California produced a long series of winning swim teams, including many swimmers who went on to participate in the Olympics. The coaches had a wonderful knack of pushing young swimmers until they reached their maximum performance, and then knowing how to back off a bit or jumping into the pool themselves to break the tension.

As time passes, however, that same approach may not be the ideal one for the more experienced worker. At that stage, it seems far more appropriate to make important decisions in partnership between two adults, and not as a parent to a child. In most leadership development programs situations involving mature adults who bring experience to their work, a joint problem-solving discussion works far better than a unilateral command.

One of the important contributions a leader makes is to expand the thinking of the subordinate about what can be accomplished and how it might be done. An important leadership communication principle is that the leader should be extremely clear about the outcome that is expected, but should leave a great deal of wiggle room for the employee in terms of how the task is completed. Often the employee doesn’t have as much experience as the leader. The employee hasn’t seen anyone attempt this task, or anything remotely like it. Here’s where the leader, after exhausting all the employee’s ideas, can suggest other approaches to consider.

Leadership Goals Need to Be Realistic

Most people are aware that when they set stretch goals, their performance improves. In many organizations this has become a way of life, but some leaders take the principle to an extreme by setting impossible goals. At least, the goal seems impossible to the people who need to embrace and execute it. When this occurs, it has the opposite effect from inspiring people. Instead, it demotivates people. They start to attribute ulterior motives to the leader who sets impossible goals. They view the leader as a greedy taskmaster whose only motive is more profit. There is a fine art to setting stretch goals that others will embrace. Ultimately, the issues are that people need to believe in their ability to achieve the goal and that there always needs to be some worthy purpose for the goal.

The employees are also going to expect the leader to lead by creating the conditions that will allow the new targets to be met. If the leader is unwilling to do that, the employee group will soon question the seriousness of this new target. One barrier in many organizations is the stifling bureaucracy that often gets in the way of getting things done. Peter Drucker observed, “Most of what we call management consists of things that make it increasingly difficult for the workers to get their jobs done.” The manager must be willing to banish bureaucracy and remove the barriers to high productivity.

An extreme expression of that perspective came from a Russian plant manager, Vladimir Karaidze, of the Ivanovo Machine Building Works near Moscow. His plant had been plagued with excessive bureaucratic requirements for forms and paperwork. He wrote to a colleague in Moscow, “I can’t stand this proliferation of paperwork. It is useless to fight the forms. You’ve got to kill the people producing them.” Most people with experience in organizations can share and feel his frustration, but hope he was joking about the solution.

A Key to Accomplishing Lofty Leadership Goals Is to Follow Through and Then Follow Through Some More Some leaders set a lofty goal for their team and ask for the team’s dedicated effort and commitment. In a few months, these same leaders go to the team with a new goal and again ask for the team members’ dedication and commitment. Such leaders simply fail to stay the course. Everyone knows how this story continues: changing priorities month after month, along with new commitments. It becomes the flavor of the month. What employees learn to do is to sandbag each of these commitments, look very busy, and conserve as much energy as possible. The consensus among the employees is that if you wait long enough, the leader will forget about previous commitments in the rush to the next goal. One person explained his approach in the following way.

When my boss has an assignment, I go to his office and take careful notes. I ask lots of questions and document exactly what is wanted and how it should be done. I always tell the boss that I will get right on this new assignment. Then I go to my office, file the notes, and do nothing. Most of the time my boss just forgets about what he asked me to do, but sometimes I get a call and a request for a progress report. I tell him that I need a couple of days to pull everything together and I will give him a progress report. I then pull out my notes and work very hard to make some progress. When I do a progress report, I always give him some critical decisions that he needs to make to keep the project moving forward. It’s not that I am lazy. I am working 60 to 70 hours a week and barely holding my head above water. This is the only way that I can survive.

One of the most frequent complaints from employees is that priorities are constantly changing. Everyone needs a clear line of sight about which work is critical and which is a lower priority.

For many leaders who cover most of the leadership characteristics list, the key to keeping their team focused on the most important priorities is that they must be willing to push back on new priorities that come from senior leaders. We are not suggesting that leaders be insubordinate, but they need to understand how a new priority fits with last month’s priorities.



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