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My favorite leadership secret

I used to spend the summer as a sailing instructor at the best summer camp in the world, Camp Nashoba North. It was there that I discovered my favorite leadership secret.

Many of the campers I taught were initially terrified of sailing the boat themselves. I would explain the basics of sailing and they would tell me, with 100% confidence, that they knew they could not sail the boat. They would list reason after reason as to why it wasn’t possible. I would happily sail along, listening to the camper, and then say, “Actually you can sail the boat, I’m sure of it – grab the tiller!” and then I’d let go of the tiller.

After the camper had the tiller in their hand, I’d move away and let them sail and just like that the campers became beginning sailors, something that only moments before they were sure they couldn’t do.

Were they perfect? Of course not. They needed coaching to get good, but the important part was done: they had gotten over the false belief that they couldn’t sail.

One of the biggest secrets of leadership is that people will rise to the level of expectation. Most people’s expectations of themselves are dangerously low. Simply put, if the person or team you are working with believes they can’t achieve something, they wont achieve it. However if they believe they can achieve something, then there is an incredibly good chance that they’ll achieve it.

It’s your job as a leader to change low expectations into high expectations.

The easiest way to do this is tell the person you’re working with that you believe in her and you know she can achieve the task at hand. In doing so, you replace her flawed and limiting expectations with your high and empowering expectations.

The process is simple. Let’s say you and your team are against a tight deadline and people are starting to fear they can’t hit it.

Step 1: make your expectations clear. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have 72 hours until this project is due. We have a lot of work to get done and I know we can do this with grace and style.”

Step 2: listen to the objections. Don’t argue or validate, just listen. Your team may say, “There is no way we can get all of this done in time, in fact, I’m not even sure we have the budget ” or “No one has every finished a project of this caliber so quickly. We can’t do this.”

Step 3: Reiterate your high expectations, encourage your team generously, and step aside to allow them to meet your expectations. You say, “Pulling this off will take skill, careful time management, and an insane amount of expertise for sure. Fortunately you have these attributes in spades. Though most people wouldn’t be able to achieve what you’re about to do, I know that you can. I have to get back to work myself now; I’m under the same pressure you are. I look forward to popping that victory champagne with you in 72 hours!”

Step 4: Encourage encourage encourage! For a truly difficult task, you have to spend a lot of time encouraging. Focus on what the individual or team is doing well and reinforce that. Ignore 99% of what they are doing poorly. Keep telling them you know they can meet your expectations, and watch the magic unfold.

Of course, this doesn’t just work with campers who want to learn to sail or extremely tight deadlines that need to be met – this works with virtually everything – including your own personal development.

The trick is to set clear, high expectations and then spend a lot of time encouraging.

Keep in mind that the inverse is often true too: if you set low expectations you run the risk of artificially inhibiting success.

Pay attention to people’s expectations of themselves because they are often unnecessarily low and expectations almost always come true. When you or your team has set dangerously low expectations, raise the bar up high and watch as people begin to rise to the level of expectation. It’s magical.

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