Leadership Mindset, Part II - Set Goals not Rules


  • People are creative and innovative with whatever they're focused on
  • Focus your people on goals, not rules
  • Not only will your team find success, they'll find happiness

In the previous article we talked about how not to think when in a leadership position. We discussed how too many managers think of people as machines, a tool in which their output is directly linked to the number of hours they spend physically at the office. This article serves to guide you on a much healthier way to think as a leader. 

First, think of people as just that...people. Not machines. Each person you know in life is different, right? They have a unique set of strengths, weaknesses, and tolerances to things like stress and pressure. But how do you go about leading a myriad of different people? First off, it's difficult. I'll be the first to say that leading people takes a lot of focused effort and retrospective learnings. That being said, a simplified way to think about leadership is to set goals and guidelines, not rules. After all, the goals are why the team exists in the first place. Let me explain.

Human beings are a wonderfully intelligent, creative, and innovative species. Human beings will use that creativity and innovation on whatever they are focused on. We crave overcoming challenges whether that's building the tallest building in the world, finding unique ways to express our emotions, or even figuring out a way to escape from imprisonment. Humans have found unique solutions to problems since the beginning of our time on this earth (i.e. harnessing fire). It tends to be that the greater that discomfort, that more we're focused on solving the problem. As a leader, it's your job to guide that focus and put something in front of your team that they'll find creative solutions for. That can be goals, or that can be rules.

I specifically use the term rules because rules are black and white, they are restrictive. They serve a valuable purpose in form of say, laws, because in general we agree that those laws serve a greater good than they do an inconvenience. However, if the inconvenience outweighs the good, or at least the consequences, we'll break those laws or find ways around them.

Consider this example:

You're on a road trip, and you're on a highway with a speed limit of 45 miles per hour. When you start the road trip, you have a Big Gulp full of your favorite beverage. As you drive, you sip on your beverage. You find yourself beginning to need a restroom. You decide you'll get off at the next exit that has a gas station. 30 minutes later and still no gas station. Your need for a restroom is increasing consistently, thanks to your Big Gulp, so you start to increase your speed. You're only going 10 miles per hour over, no big deal. However, as the need for a restroom increases, you'll either need to:

  1. Increase your speed
  2. Stop on the side of the road
  3. Find an empty bottle somewhere in your car while you drive. 

All three of those options break the law (the rules) but the discomfort you're feeling outweighs the negative consequences of that law and you're willing to take the chance.

This is the case for all rules. Don't get me wrong, rules serve a vital role in societies and organizations of all kinds, and they're absolutely necessary. However, when it comes leading a team that utilizes creative problem solving, they can be stifling if mis- or over-used. The more restrictive the rule and the more discomfort it puts on your team, the more likely the rule is to become the team's focus and the target of their innovation and creativity.

If you set goals, and make that your focus instead of following rules, you'll be allowing your people the freedom to decide how they utilize their unique strengths, mitigate their unique weaknesses, and achieve that goal in new ways. They'll exercise creativity and innovation, you just get to decide in what ways.

Let me give you an example:

I was working with a technology startup that was very flexible in terms of working hours and location. So open in fact, that half of my team was remote. Half the team was on Pacific Standard Time, the other half was in various other time zones. The furthest person, "Charles", was in Eastern Time. This started to become a bit of a challenge to facilitate collaboration on the team. Communication became delayed with Charles, and as a result he began to feel disconnected from the team, which only made the problem worse.

I had two options:

  1. Explain to the team what was happening and set a goal
  2. Dictate rules that would attempt to solve the problem

I considered some rules such as telling Charles he had to adjust his schedule to fit with the team's working hours, or that he had to write a daily "where I'm leaving off" email so someone else could pick up his work. I decided however, that I would give the team a chance to find better solutions. So I went to the team and explained what was going on, and that my goal was to get Charles back in the loop and to smooth out the workflow and communication between him and the team. I didn't tell them how I wanted to accomplish this. 

Within 24 hours, another team member, "John", took it upon himself to adjust his schedule to better match Charle's and help facilitate collaboration. He began serving as a solid connection between Charles and the team. John would work extended days during critical parts of our development cycle, and then would work shorter days during less critical times to recoup. This made everyone significantly happier. John actually liked the variable schedule and getting shorter days here and there, as well as being able to work with Charles more. They formed a strong relationship, and Charles felt like much more a part of the team. As a result, he became a much stronger contributor and was motivated to also adjust his schedule to split the difference. Because of this improved connection with the team, Charles also volunteered to shadow other and broaden his skillset so that he was able to pick up a wider variety of work and fit in where he could. Overall it was a huge success, and all because the creativity of the team, not because of my ideas.

My point is this: it didn't matter the number of hours that John was working, or when Charles was working. What mattered was the goal that Charles felt like he was a part of the team, and that communication improved. John did what he had to to ensure that happened. The focus was on the goal, the people; and the result was a creative solution that value of multiple people and the team overall.

Lead Happy!