High Expectations + Compassion = Leadership

I’ve been troubled for a long time with the leadership hero-worship of Steve Jobs, mainly because everything I read about him suggested that he was a nasty, rough bully. But when I recently read an article about Jobs in the Harvard Business Review, I’ve changed my mind, just a little bit.

Jobs did everything in search of the perfect product, the best way to disrupt industries, make them better, faster and more accessible. The people who worked for him bought into his vision. They also bought into his high expectations. That made them produce bigger, faster and better than any other company in technology. It’s debatable whether Jobs needed to be a jerk in order to enforce his standards, but in the end, his family of employees were very loyal to him (as he was to them).

Educational research also suggests that higher expectations leads to greater learning. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, in their book, Academically Adrift, show that students who report that their professors have high expectations are significantly more likely to improve in critical thinking, analytical reasoning and writing, than students with professors with lower expectations.

I’m not advocating for unrealistic expectations (as in Goals Gone Wild), which may drive people to cheat or otherwise behave inappropriately to achieve the goals. Nor do I believe that we should bully or berate people, as Peter Bregman notes, high expectations should be buffered with a bit of compassion. But I do believe that people will live up to what is expected of them, if the expectations both stretch goals and attainable, and they have support, the ability and motivation.

I’m also not advocating the “only A players” viewpoint from GE. The fact is that there are many “B” players who have the potential to contribute in a meaningful, positive way, given the support, training, and opportunity. Focusing on leveraging the ability of the middle of the pack is much more likely to improve organizational effectiveness than on a few high potential individuals in an organization.

Some of the best leaders I ever met set high standards, and didn’t compromise these standards in the pursuit of getting it done. The best leaders set clear expectations. They don’t accept work that doesn’t meet those standards. It can be hard to work for someone with high standards. But the good news is that when you meet those standards there is a sense of reward, success and accomplishment. And you might learn something.

What are your expectations? Are they attainable with a bit of stretch? Are they clear? Does your team have the ability to make them happen? Are the resources in place to make them happen? Are you there, really there, to coach, cajole and otherwise drive them to success?  Then you, my friend, are ready to lead.


Arum, R. & Roksa, J. (2011). Academically adrift: Limited learning on college campuses. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press.

Isaacson, W. (2012). The real leadership lessons of Steve Jobs. Harvard Business Review. April 2012, 92-102.


Categories: Leadership

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3 replies »

  1. A general observation is that we’ve lowered our expectations of excellence. Not everything has to be “excellent,” but things that support our core competence or core of our brand should be. I am so glad you included the reference to style. “High standards” does not mean “Be a Bully.” Like you, the best leaders I know expected the best and gave their best. Winning through intimidation is short sighted and over rated.

  2. Thanks Susan. I’m so with you. Brands die when they compromise. They become meaningless and deliver less value. And worse, people stop believing in the brand. Thanks for reading again.

  3. Hi Colleen – the ‘short-termism’ that is referred to by Susan is very prevalent in business today. To be fair, it is driven by more than leadership, particularly in listed companies, however it influences many behaviours, including the bullying / “just do it” mentality. I always felt that I expected high standards of input and output from my teams and although this had to be managed differently with each team member (and I did not always get this right – however feel that some of my great leadership learning stemmed from these moments) ultimately I believe it led to respect for my style. I am aggressively against bullying and coercion as any benefits and results always have a short time-frame of success. Engaging, compassionate, connected leadership, amongst other attributes, wins every time over the long-term, when compared to the alternatives highlighted in another great blog by you, Colleen.
    PS – great to be responding to two of my favourite bloggers!!!

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