Three bars: a simple philosophy of leadership

Bill Walsh, one of the greatest NFL coaches ever, knows what people are really like: “Like water, many decent individuals will seek lower ground if left to their own inclinations.” He goes on to describe the role of a coach: “In most cases you are the one who inspires and demands they go upward rather than settle for the comfort of doing what comes easily.”

After reading the foreword to The Score Takes Care of Itself—the book the above quote is plucked from—I wrote and underlined three words:


For me, that’s what leadership is about. That’s what a coach and a teacher does. They determine the standards and they set the expectations. And the best leaders, coaches and teachers know that these two things are not the same. The expectations are always higher than the standards. Their expectation is that you’ll surpass the standards.

But there’s a third component to this equation of leadership. It’s the final piece to the puzzle, and I found it in Jocko Willink’s Extreme Ownership:

“… when it comes to standards, as a leader, it’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate. When setting expectations, no matter what has been said or written, if substandard performance is accepted and no one is held accountable—if there are no consequences—that poor performance becomes the new standard.”

Traditional management has three tiers of performance: the expected, the standard, and the tolerated. The expectations are always the highest. The standards they spell out are usually lower. But what is tolerated typically falls short of both ideals. Which is the problem. Because what Jocko Willink has figured out is that you become what you tolerate. 

If, as an organisation, I allow my customer service team to treat long-term clients without respect, we become the sort of organisation that disrespects the people it needs most. If, as a restaurant owner, I let my kitchen staff be untidy and disorganised, I become the owner of a restaurant with an unorganised and inefficient kitchen. If, as CEO of a growing company, I don’t create an environment conducive to creativity, risk taking and process breaking, I become the captain of a ship that’s not sailing anywhere fast. 

This idea of expectations, standards and tolerances applies to individuals too. If I, as a writer, don’t edit and rigorously check my work before I publish it, I become the sort of writer who puts out weak work. If I, as a person, don’t notice or criticise myself when I don’t make time for the people I care about, I become the sort of person who takes from others, but doesn’t give back to them.

As a leader, teacher or coach, you need to set three bars. The first is your expectations. These are the highest and often, unreachable, which is how it should be. Expectations shouldn’t be easily satisfied. The second is your standards. These are high too, but within reach for the majority. They require effort and ingenuity to attain, but are not impossible. The third bar is what you tolerate. This should be the same height as your standards. Every action and decision that falls below this bar should be penalised in some shape or form. 

Of course it’s easy to figure out what the first and second bar are. Their setting requires no actual work, except the decision to set them at a certain level. But the third bar requires real, tangible work. It takes time and energy to put structures and systems in place that ensure people meet and consistently stay above a certain level. And it’s not enough just to put them in place. You also have to maintain, tinker with, and improve these processes and structures. That means a lot of time thinking, reflecting and having uncomfortable conversations. At the end of the day, having world-class standards and expectations is pointless if you accept mediocre behaviour and decisions.

Holding the standard is hard work, but it’s the work a leader, teacher or coach must do. You must set these three bars—your expectations, your standards and most importantly, what you tolerate—because, ultimately, they are your philosophy of leadership. And your philosophy of leadership is what determines how good you and the people you lead become.