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Define Yourself With the Expectations You Set

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A famous coach once said, “You are what your record says you are.” But I recently found out that’s not true. You’re not just the sum of your accomplishments. You are much more than that. You are—or you can be—whatever you expect yourself to be.

I found that out when I talked to retired four-star General Stanley McChrystal. McChrystal is a legend in the Special Ops community. After 9/11, he found himself facing an enemy who was more adaptive in the way it fought its battles. In turn, McChrystal changed the way our Special Operations functioned. He changed its design, its focus—and, what’s more, he got everyone to buy into his new plan.

The fact that soldiers came out of retirement to follow McChrystal into a challenging war in speaks to his effectiveness as a leader. He knows a thing or two about motivation and how to bring out the best in people.

It comes down to this: When McChrystal starts talking, you start listening.

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After retiring from the military, McChrystal started a consulting firm. He helps his clients thrive in the highly competitive corporate world. He does this by showing them how to create an atmosphere in which people can become more than what they are. And it all starts with expectations.

“In my military career, I found that there would be very elite units, and units that had much lower standards,” he told me. “My first guess was that the people in the elite units were elite people—they were stronger, faster, smarter—and the other people just had lesser talent.

“But that wasn’t true at all. In fact, I found out that you could take someone from a lesser unit and put them in an elite unit, and their standards would rise dramatically. Similarly, you could take someone from an elite unit, and they could go to a lesser unit, and in many cases, they performed at a lower standard,” he said.

McChrystal says it’s all about expectations, both individually and for the group as a whole. “It comes from your environment, and the people you’re around,” he said. “You create the environment and self-support each other. Typically, the higher the expectations, the better the organization.”

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Once the expectations of the group are in place, he said, then it begins to get personal. “People begin to set expectations for themselves,” McChrystal said. “and that starts to form the basis of real self-discipline."

When you create standards for yourself, the McChrystal said, “the person you don’t want to let down is the person in the mirror.”

Want to see what people can make of themselves just by changing their expectations? All you have to do is look at our own history. “After World War II, we had just come out of the Great Depression,” McChrystal said. “Times were tough. But 16 million Americans served in the war, and a tremendous number of those people went somewhere else and had completely different experiences than what they were used to.

“Suddenly, these people saw, ‘I could be more than I thought I was.’ We had this incredible boom after the Second World War—the Greatest Generation—all because their expectations of themselves had been raised.”

What are the expectations of your team? Is your organization an elite group? Do you surround yourself with people who make you “up your game”? Follow the lead of General McChrystal. Form a community that will demand your best, in a supportive way. You’ll surprise yourself by how quickly you’ll succeed. 

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