U.S. General George Patton believed leadership meant exceeding expectations. “Always … do more than is required of you.” He did, and it worked. We can, and it will.
What does it mean to “exceed expectations?” How do you do that? Why bother in times of unabashed mediocrity? Why be your best if you can be average or a victim?
For many, exceeding expectations seems a waste of time. It is not. Only when you have traveled far and look back do you see how unremitting effort pays off; languishing erodes self-respect.
For those of a certain generation, Star Trek’s Gene Rodenberry, Captain Kirk, Spock, and Doc said it all. Their mission was “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Conceive the impossible, embrace it. That was Apollo – walking on the moon. We imagined, then did it.
How do we do that? We must push the possible, got to the edge. Think bigger and imagine. We can only know our true capacity when we test our limits, so test them, dare it.
We only learn by doing, which involves risk, and invites failure. But here is the secret, what no one says. Success is built on failures – doing, failing, learning, retrying, and resilience to succeed.
Winston Churchill, who failed most of his life until he saved the world, wrote: “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” And: “Success is not final; failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” Not words, he did it.
On any given day, greatness – having a breakthrough day – is not an accident. Although not possible without imagining such a day, it is always possible, pursuing the dream.
Most who understand “exceeding expectations” think of it as comparative, better than someone, becoming a standout in scholarship, indispensable at work, a new highwater mark. If others put in 80 percent, count me for 90. If most do ten reps, try eleven. If others run 3 miles, run four.
That is a start, but not Patton. Where others took the measure of the world and aimed to exceed it, that’s not what Patton did at West Point in WWII in Sicily, France, and Germany. He set his own expectations – about everything – and then exceeded them.
Standing on ancient battlefields, he imagined – he vicariously experienced – what had happened there. A voracious reader of history, he saw colors others missed and took them on. He read until the battle lived before him and learned from what he saw, doing more than required.
Patton tapped his heart, extracting power to reach higher, see how high he could reach. The further he reached, the higher he got; the more courage he showed, the more he found. He set his own expectations, then pressed to exceed them.
Patton assumed risk – on the rifle range, misappropriating a tank to take it apart and rebuild it, in the 1912 Olympics (competing in the modern pentathlon), and at war. What animated him was something within, not without. He did not care what anyone called limits since the only person who knew his limits – was him, and he kept testing them.
To fight in North Africa, he read the Koran, seeking to understand those who revered it. He did the same with the Germans and military doctrine. Leading in battle, he ran before his tanks.
On December 20, 1944, having led in Sicily, gotten benched for insensitivity, and restored to lead the Third Army, Patton was pushing into Germany. The 101st Airborne had dropped into Bastogne.
That location would decide the war – because if Germany attacked there, broke through, got to Antwerp, could divide the American and British Armies, sue for peace, it would be over. But there was no attack yet. The famous “Battle of the Bulge” was coming.
Within days, the 101st, 506th Infantry Regiment and others, would be surrounded by Germans, seemingly doomed. The Germans would demand surrender. The Americans would respond “Nuts!” But the courageous 101st was frozen, low on ammunition, food, and medical supplies.
Here is where exceeding his own expectations comes in. Patton’s Third Army should have been out of reach – unable to rescue the 101st at Bastogne. But Patton had studied German history.
As a result, Patton had been “methodically accumulating evidence since early November 1944 that raised suspicions in his mind that the Germans were up to something in the north,” where Bastogne lay. Anticipating a German attack there – which others thought crazy – he prepared.
Leadership called the scenario impossible. Patton ignored them. He set his own expectations and prepared to exceed them if needed. He evaluated contingencies, prepared to pivot the Third Army 90 degrees, and attack north – toward Bastogne.
With no orders, he was 100 rough miles from Bastogne. But this was his “finest hour.” The Nazis did as Patton suspected – attacked at Bastogne, the least likely spot. Supreme Allied Commander Eisenhower then asked with trepidation – a week to get there?
Patton responded: “I can attack with three divisions in forty-eight hours.” Command in shock, he did just that, saved them, turned the Battle of the Bulge, and chased Hitler’s troops to their end.
In short, Patton did “more than was required” and – as with Churchill’s conviction that failures precede success – Patton saved the day, the battle, and arguably the war.
Being determined to “exceed expectations” is not a bumper sticker. It is a way of life – and it works. If you resolve to think big, risk failure, know you will fall, and press on, you can exceed high expectations. What others do is one reference point. What you reach for is entirely you. Patton reached – every day – as high as his mind, heart, imagination, scholarship, and sense of the possible allowed. Because he did, we get the chance – and it is worth taking.