Why Leaders need to be SMARTER than SMART

SMART goals

Written by Stephen Manley -
This article first appeared in the LinkedIn Pulse.

Many people dream of having a house by the sea. I do too. For myself, I quite like the Atlantic coast, specifically Maine. I'll know when I've got it - because I'll see it there right in front of me. Keys in my hand. That'll be my measure of success. Providing I could get sell-up, save (a lot) and coax my family then this is achievable. In fact, I've found a plot of land up for sale already - the perfect one in fact. This is not some pipe-dream - it's a real as it could be. My aim is to get the keys in time for next Christmas.

  • Specific - check
  • Measurable - check
  • Achievable - check
  • Realistic - check
  • Time-bound - check

SMART Goals can lead to success - so it's a done deal then…….not quite. Just because something can be done, doesn't necessarily mean it will be done.

So, here's my question: Do SMART Goals work?

"Sometimes" - you might reflect.

Why don't they sometimes?

When they do - why/how do they work?

What I'd like to share are some personal insights. First, let's be realistic (well 'R' is one of the letters isn't it?) - these insights won't provide the solution to every performance issue - but they just might help you improve your performance as a leader and consequently, those whom you lead.

Interested? Ok, let's continue….

In the early days of my career I was, as I'm sure many of us were, introduced to the concept of SMART goals. On the one hand I felt excited like I had been exposed to the 'secret' about how to achieve everything I'd ever wanted to - but there was another hand. The other hand tempered my enthusiasm. If the first hand was receptive - with an open hand gesture ready to receive, then this other hand was very much defensive - clenched, if you like.


Maybe it was the language - 'SMART'. It suggested to me that before learning about this acronym - some (or worse still, all) of my previous achievements had been done so in a non-SMART way. How could this be? I'd achieved things without any 'formula' before…….. or so I'd thought.

SMART has value in the sense that it heightens our conscious awareness of the goals we set, and it encourages to make a wish or a dream tangible. This must be a good thing. Understanding SMART helps us to lay out some thinking about the characteristics of what you want to achieve at some point in the future.

As Leaders many of us encourage the use of SMART when guiding those whom we lead. Many of us use SMART to help team members set direction, go forth & all being well - achieve.

Personally, the more I used SMART as a Leader, the more I noticed a similar response from people in general. Resistance. It was as if they were apprehensive about using it themselves. At best they would comply - however, they almost always wanted to check for my approval and even my input and guidance. It was as if I (the Leader) was the authority on SMARTness. I noticed how my team would treat this as an 'outside-in' approach. Consequently, following every 1-2-1 where I'd advocated using SMART- I would always walk away the most knowledgeable about their goals. I was clear in my mind, at least, how they should go about achieving their goals. As I strived to insert meaning and purpose into the actions I was encouraging them to take I considered all the great reasons why this action was the right thing to do.

Note the use of 'I' in that last paragraph. It's a clue to what was profoundly wrong.

Surely the balance of ownership of this knowledge was with the wrong person in the relationship? With me, the Leader doing all this thinking on their behalf - no wonder I was coming across as the authority. Maybe sometimes - I even thought they might even have 'motivational issues' with these actions.

I also learned SMART goal-setting is biased towards the task element. The required thinking and emotions which are required to undertake actions are omitted or at best assumed that they are a 'given'. However, as we have, in most organizations for the most part, acknowledged that the industrial age is a thing of the past - people are not the same as machines and equipment. The knowledge-age is one which requires inspiration not control if we want engagement.

These days we hear the word engagement, trust, motivation and ownership being bandied about as factors which affect people performance. Notice, all these factors impact our emotional and thinking processes which precede our behaviours, strategies and ultimately our achievement of goals.

Ok so we're all in the results business - I get that.

Results come after we do certain things or take certain actions (behaviours) AND we only do those, once we've decided to (thinking) and if it feels right (emotions). If you want to lead, you're not just in the results business - you're also in the thinking and emotions business.

To exist in the rapidly changing knowledge-age requires leadership, not just management. Leadership after all, influences hearts & minds - not just hands. One of the best ways you can influence someone's thinking and engage them as a Leader is to ask questions.

SMARTER Foundations

I'd like to suggest that these lie (you've guessed it) below SMART goals. We all know what foundations do - they ensure success or stability for whatever is built upon it. SMARTER Foundations exist on the emotional and thinking level so that the doing-level is more likely to bring about success.

In his critically acclaimed TED talk, Simon Sinek explains brilliantly the communication method of Why>How>What and how starting with Why is the way to Lead more effectively. In fact, you engage with the part of people's brains that determines their behaviours.

SMART has a place. It's great for exploring some areas of logic for the things that need to be achieved - but perhaps it's not enough. It's particularly good at confirming key aspects before we go forth with our actions.

Recently, I asked a simple question to a team that I was working with: "Would you say the way we feel actually determines what we do and how successfully we do it?". No prizes for guessing the overwhelming response. So why would we omit such an influential factor when we're setting goals with ourselves and others? If we encourage those whom we lead to explore these areas which are clearly fundamental - we have a better opportunity for laying the foundation for actual performance, engagement and positive outcomes.

As a Leader - what foundations have you laid so far with those whom you lead?


About the author - Stephen Manley is the Coaching Director at Spitfire, a consulting firm with a global reach across Europe, North America, Middle East & Africa. Stephen works with individuals, teams and organisations worldwide to achieve transformational change in thinking, behaviours and ultimately results. Get in touch to learn more LinkedIn

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