The Maximum Standard

Definition: The challenging expectations leaders set for both themselves and their teams with the goal of realizing their full potential

by Stephen T. Messenger

January 1, 2021

In the United States military, each branch administers a biannual physical fitness test to ensure the readiness of the force.  The tests culminate with a timed run ranging from one and a half to three miles based on the individual service with scores corresponding to the runner’s speed. 

This includes a relatively achievable minimum standard required to pass.  If you’ve been around the culture long enough, you’ll witness an interesting phenomenon.  

The majority of the runners give their all as they breathlessly cross the finish line with impressive times.  But as seconds tick down to differentiate those who pass and those who fail, invariably, you’ll see those who comfortably sneak past the line just before the clock expires. 

Barely breaking a sweat, they knowingly meet the lowest required time to pass the test. They are part of the culture of mediocrity. 

However, I personally find it hard to only fault the athletes for failing to try their hardest. We’re all a product of our environment and have been constantly measured by what our leaders publicly state to be the minimum standard.

By the nature of any task, each one comes with criteria that describe the least amount of effort required to be successful.  These standards are the bare minimum – for example an eighty percent on a driving test, a defined number of widgets produced on the assembly line every day, or in the Army three hours to complete a twelve-mile road march. 

Each event has an ominous black cloud denoting the minimum level of effort needed to remain in good standing, which thankfully, many ignore and far exceed the requirement.  Unfortunately, for every great man or woman who strives for excellence, there is one who is perfectly content to meet the lowest expectations. 

Leaders must throw this minimalist mindset out the window and replace it with the “Maximum Standard.”

Let me explain; we all know the world’s standards are not that high.  With some notable exceptions for physical handicaps, any citizen can pass a driving test, any employee can perform their job without being fired, and any Soldier can pass a basic physical fitness test. 

This includes tasks ranging from military positions, civilian employment, volunteer events, and family dynamics.  We are going to hear for the rest of our lives the minimum we need to be successful. 

Leaders must throw out the minimum requirement and reframe every event to a higher standard – The Maximum Standard. 

This is the challenging expectation leaders set for both themselves and their teams with the goal of realizing their full potential. 

Not in a self-indulgent way, but in a manner to fully realize the potential of those working for and around them.  The burden of leadership is great, and it’s easy to lose sight of striving for excellence when surrounded by the occasional peer or worker who doesn’t understand the importance of achieving their full capacity.   

After establishing the maximum standard, excellence will naturally permeate into those you work with.  Simply by demonstrating a higher standard and speaking about increased goals to your team, in many cases motivation levels increase. 

Major Dick Winters, from the miniseries or book Band of Brothers was an American Soldier fighting across Europe during World War II.  He understood that every training exercise, battle, and personal interaction left an indelible imprint on those around him. 

He upheld extremely high personal standards and expected his unit to do the same.  As a result, his unit outperformed, and outlived in many cases, his adjacent companies in France and Germany.

From a personal note, I attempt to channel my inner Dick Winters and take every leadership opportunity seriously.  I honestly believe that what I read, how I interact with others, and my daily activities will have effects on individuals I lead as I potentially plan operations for my organization in the future. 

My daily studies, both formal and informal, could very well determine the success or failure of my team in the future.  Your daily activities and studies could also have the same outcome.  Leaders hold themselves to the maximum standard for every task and inspire their teams to do the same.

 A 21st Century United States leader is expected to be many things.  In the Army, a Soldier is expected to be a subject matter expert, leader, student, mentor, athlete, tactician, strategist, community activist, and a myriad of other roles along with being a friend, spouse, or parent. 

A company manager is expected to increase profits, meet bottom lines, and establish a positive work climate all while maintaining a healthy family life.  It is simply impossible to achieve excellence in every single area and still find time to sleep at night. 

This is why the challenge is not to be the best at everything, but to be the best you can be at everything. 

Wherever we are leading, we owe it to our team, Soldiers, families, or communities to strive for our maximum standard. 

No one expects you to be manager of the quarter, but they do expect you to inspire your team and proudly lead your subordinates to far exceed the minimums. 

No one expects you to be honor graduate at your next school, but they do expect you to get the most out of your experience and return smarter and more competent with more than a passing grade. 

And no one expects you to be relative of the year, but you had better be deliberately carving out time for your spouse, children, and parents.

Thankfully, our Nation’s leaders consist of the best and brightest America has to offer.  Sometimes, all it takes is a slight change in narrative to increase team performance and cohesion. 

By updating your language to delete the minimum standard and encourage the maximum standard, you may no longer find yourself sadly shaking your head at the finish line as the final runner easily trickles by, but instead watch as morale increases, profits soar, and teams are inspired.

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