4 Ways World-Class Leaders Set and Manage Expectations (+ How You Can Do It Too!)

Table of Contents

  1. Focus on Coaching vs. Criticism
  2. Employ a Democratic Leadership Style
  3. Learn to be an A3 Leader
  4. Lead Based on Need

Right now, leaders are facing a situation similar to those I’ve faced when going into adventure races: they have small teams of employees trying to navigate their way through totally uncharted territory and working towards a challenging end goal amidst extreme time pressures and ever-changing conditions. And these teams want to finish strong — with higher profit margins or business success to prove it. 

So, how do we set goals and manage expectations as leaders in times of extreme challenge and change, while inspiring the kind of mindset in our employees to adapt, overcome and win as one? 

1. Focus on Coaching vs Criticism 

If you are mentally pointing a finger at someone when you discuss things that need to be done or changed (you need more training, you blew that sale, you were unprepared and so on), your teammate is going to instantly put up a wall and get defensive.

But if you mentally extend a hand instead (Here’s what I’m seeing, share your challenges with me, how can I help? What do you need from us to be successful?), then there is a much greater chance that your message will be received in good faith and that positive change will be made.

It’s easy to set and manage expectations by constantly criticizing your employees. It’s much harder and much more worthwhile to coach instead, to offer a towline that lets your teammates know you believe in them. 

Consciously think about extending a hand to your teammates when behaviors need to change instead of pointing a finger. You will be closer to your goal and be a more well-respected leader at the same time.

2. Invite Your Team to Help Shape Expectations by Employing a Democratic Leadership Style 

Nothing inspires an entrepreneurial spirit like being asked for one’s input and opinion. With a democratic and inclusive leadership style, you can move a team member from being part of the audience to becoming a proactive and instrumental part of the solution in minutes. 

It’s amazing how often we make the mistake of handing someone “their goals” from on high without asking for their input or getting their buy-in on what’s possible from their perspective.

The best teammates and leaders realize that we all want to feel like we have contributed to the success of an organization, a family, a relationship; and a key way to inspire that entrepreneurial spirit is to listen to our teammates, hear their opinions, and solicit their ideas.

Great leaders understand that nothing shows an employee that they are respected and valued more than seeing their ideas and comments acted on and incorporated by the team. People will embrace that which they help create.

3. Learn to Be An A3 Leader

Instead of being a C3 leader—that is, one who compares, competes and criticizes—I urge you to try to be an A3 leader: a person who accepts, acknowledges and appreciates the positive things about his or her teammates. 

One of the most counterproductive C3 team disasters I’ve ever seen came during the 2002 Eco-Challenge in Fiji, when one particular team leader fostered eating up his team from the inside out because he tolerated and personally engaged in comparing, competing and criticizing to feed his own ego. It was bad. These guys had an all-you-can-eat buffet on each other by the time their race was over—and their race was over in about thirty-six hours because they completely self-destructed.

The team leader was an army Ranger whom his female teammate called Ranger Boy, and the rest of the team was made up mostly of elite Special Forces types, including a navy SEAL. Ironically, the team was racing on behalf of a charity. They were racing together for a higher purpose, yet they treated one another like enemies. 

The expectations they set at the beginning of the challenge were high, but their mutual respect, communication, and appreciation for each other were way below what is expected from a world-class team.

Historically, military teams do not do well in adventure racing because the top-down leadership style isn’t what is called for when there’s no real battle plan to execute.

In adventure racing, the plans change minute to minute, and no one person can be an expert. You’ve got to accept that you personally won’t have the answers to handle everything, but instead trust that you have a team that can handle just about anything.

This attitude will get you a heck of a lot closer to the finish line and help you move through those checkpoints a whole lot faster, too. Remember that we work for people, not for companies. Everyone will work much harder for an A3 teammate or team leader than a C3 one.

4. Lead Based on Need 

It’s so very important to be the leader that your team needs in the moment, and the best leaders are consistently monitoring the crew, the situation, and the task at hand, and becoming the best possible Captain for the job.  

For example, based on my background as a firefighter, during a fire or medical emergency, the back seaters expect (and honestly often appreciate) being told exactly what you want us to do. Those are the times when we need to act quickly and in unison according to a plan.  So we need you to step up and take charge.  

But when we’re at the station eating dinner or working out, we’d love you to leave your badge behind and just be our friend.  

And at other times, we like you to be our coach, teaching us something you’ve learned in your career, without giving us the feeling that you’re setting expectations just for the sake of being the one who’s in charge, “evaluating” us on our performance, so we can’t make mistakes.  

We want you to be the person that we aspire to be more like, as a leader, a manager, a mentor, and a friend – versus just a boss who barks orders from behind their badge all day. 

The key to ensuring that employees want to reach the high expectations we set as leaders is to show that you genuinely care about the people on your crew (and not just the process of day to day operations) by being responsive to their needs, you’re going to have people fighting to be on your crew/team your entire career. 

And while many leaders believe that the best way to set clear goals and manage expectations and make their leadership skills shine bright is by giving clear directions while constantly monitoring employee performance and reminding their team of the dos and don’ts, the best leaders in the world are demonstrating their accountability by being flexible and aware of who and how they need to be to get the best results from each team member. It’s one of the best possible ways not only to set expectations but to show your team members that you see them, you care for them, and you want to bring out the best in them.