A good leader can take an organization or team and accomplish things that no one thought was possible. In order to do this, a leader must make incremental changes that are challenging, but not impossible. By giving their organization a series of successes, they will build momentum that will help them overcome even more difficult obstacles in the future.
There is an occupation that is particularly good at doing this with the people they lead–teachers. Good teachers take their students far beyond what the students think is possible in a short period of time.
To accomplish this, teachers break the overall semester goals into smaller weekly goals and arrange them in a logical order. One of the things that sets truly talented teachers apart from others is their ability to arrange study topics and assignments in the sequence that is most suitable for learning.
The best teachers I have had plan their assignments out for the entire semester and include it as part of the syllabus. Going into the class, you look at the assignments and it is overwhelming, but the first one looks doable, challenging and interesting. In the process of completing the first assignment, you learn several things that make the next assignment a little more doable and so on. By the time you’ve completed 3 or 4 assignments, you have momentum and confidence. The confidence isn’t in how smart you are, but it is more of a trust in the teacher that if he gives you an assignment, it is something that you can complete.
A leader must take the same approach as a teacher when it comes to improving his organization. They must present a picture of where they are going that is challenging and beyond what their team thinks they can achieve. They must present a plan broken down into individual goals and the first one must be challenging, but within what everyone thinks is possible.
The difficulty for most leaders is the fact that many don’t have enough experience with their organization or as a leader to know what is possible and what is not. They also don’t have the experience to know how much obtaining a particular goal will increase the skill of their team. This makes it difficult to create a series of goals where, every time you achieve one, you are more equipped to achieve the next.
Professors have the advantage of being able to teach the same class year after year. Some of the best classes I’ve taken were by professors who have been teaching the same class with the same assignments for the past 20 or 30 years. Since teachers get a new class each semester, they have the chance to start fresh. Any miscalculations about the difficulty of certain assignments can be changed the next semester and any discouragement on the part of the students is not cumulative. They will start with fresh students next year.
If you are leading an organization, you don’t have many of these luxuries. One miscalculation can discourage your team and instead of catapulting them to a new level, can actually reduce what they are capable of accomplishing. To manage these risks, a leader must approach their first goals very carefully.
It is wise to start with small changes first. This helps build momentum and gives the leader a better idea of what his people are capable of accomplishing. By making the goals informal, a leader can learn these things while reducing the risk of creating discouragement.
Over time, a leader must articulate formal goals and plans. Some leaders don’t want to tell anyone what the organizational goals are because they don’t want people to get discouraged if they aren’t achieved. While this might be beneficial for a short period of time, if a leader is unable to share goals and plans after a year, it will be detrimental to the organization.
Teamwork can only flourish when there are clear goals. Without clear goals, everyone will default to doing whatever is best for themselves. This creates a political environment.