A study in setting the bar: Why leaders should have patience, balance and the ability to risk being wrong

Consider this: When setting the bar, where’s the ideal place to place it? How high? When’s the best time to move it up? Should expectations be lowered? If yes, does that mean that the organization has to accept less?

Our Lady of the Wayside has accomplished 47 percent of its three-year long-range plan in 10 months. I look at that and think, good — but why can’t it be 50 percent? As a leader, I’m going to check in with the team, evaluate where we are and take another look at that bar …

The answers to all of this come down to leadership. I’d like to offer you what’s worked for me:


I know … we’re not just wandering after excellence — we’re in pursuit of it — and patience isn’t a quality that leaps to mind. That said, strong leadership demands:

  • Securing external information and internal context for effective decision-making.
  • Developing and educating core staff in a way that challenges and values them.
  • Motivating internal leaders to step outside of the their comfort zones with confidence.
  • Simply letting people do their job.

Patience is tough because when you can see the goal, you want to get there now. Luckily, we’re leaders, which means we know better than to go it alone, and we have the patience to set the bar to do the next right thing … and then the next right thing after that.


Remember when you thought that leadership happened at the top of some mountain where the rare air enabled the righteous few to make profound proclamations? Now we know leadership happens with boots on the ground and an eye on the prize some 30,000 feet in the air. That takes balancing:

  • Long-range plans and short-term disasters.
  • Annual budgets and individual paychecks.
  • Applying pressure and blowing off steam.
  • Cultivating up-and-coming staff and energizing long-standing colleagues.
  • Observing in nuanced shifts and seeing the entire picture.
  • Knowing what you know and acquiring new information to stay relevant.
  • Being approachable and in command.

Balancing the bar as you’re setting it is leadership in motion.

Be wrong

Genuine leadership takes confidence and ironically, that comes with knowing you and your staff can make mistakes and fix them. As a leader, it doesn’t have to be right for me, but it does need to be right for the organization. Be wrong and then:

  • Get in front of the error.
  • Acknowledge and admit the wrong.
  • Reassess, correct and retool.
  • Use the failure as a catalyst to energize.

The bar’s going to be in the wrong place sometimes, and that has to be OK. There’s no better teacher than the challenge of fixing what went wrong, and if you’re not learning each day — you’re just gonna get schooled.

Terry Davis is president and CEO of Our Lady of the Wayside, a regional leader in residential, respite, transportation and adult day care programming for children and adults with developmental disabilities. Visit www.thewayside.org.