It would be the unusual leader who would admit that they don’t aspire to build energized engaged teams that deliver exceptional performance. Yet, results too often fall short of aspirations. When I ask team leaders about the gap between their aspirations and reality, they give a variety of reasons for their team’s performance. A few leaders are reflective and introspective and ‘own the gap’. Most are quick to say why their team is superior, then go on to describe external factors beyond their control that lead to disappointing results.
Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to work with some especially performance-driven teams. Their self-confidence and will-to-win were unmatched. In some cases, the strength of the team’s cognitive superiority bias and their ability to distort reality was also unmatched. The leaders of those teams chose not invest time into reflecting on results, whether good or bad. Their focus was on pushing ever harder to deliver short-term results. For a time, it worked. Until it didn’t. Once they hit that tipping point, no amount of spin could hide the gap between the way the leaders saw themselves and their team, versus the business results.
In contrast, I’ve also had the opportunity to spend time with performance-driven teams who were equally dedicated to reflection and continuously closing any gaps between aspiration and action. During one memorable evening with a group of Israeli Air Force (IAF) fighter pilots, they described their approach to preventing superiority biases, which was as simple as it was challenging. After every mission, they held an After-Action Review. For any gap or variance in performance, there was one point of responsibility, one squadron member who owned the gap and stood in front of his teammates to answer three questions: What was the gap? Why was there a gap? and How to close the gap? No excuses. No reality distortions. Total ownership. One pilot summed up the process saying, “Understand that to do our job, we must believe and be confident that we are the best of the best. But, if that confidence becomes arrogance to the point that we stop improving, and we aren’t 100% honest with ourselves and our team about any gap or issue, then someone may not come home from the next mission.”
Through the Looking Glass
Overcoming biases and changing habits is hard. If it were easy, everyone would do it – especially given the rewards of team performance and well-being. Instead, many leaders unintentionally choose mediocrity. Returning to the example of the IAF fighter pilots, the fact that a choice may be subconscious doesn’t make it any less a choice. Acknowledging the risk, exceptional leaders put their gaps and choices on the table and own them. No excuses. No reality distortions. Aristotle’s observation of human behavior touches upon the essence of leadership. Hanging Aristotle’s Mirror in your office, and regularly using it to examine your habits, can go a long way to ensure that you put your team on the path to excellence and keep them there.