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Growing Leaders Blog

on Leading the Next Generation


Do You Lower the Standard or Lower Your Goal?

The U.S. Army made a change in their recruiting standards last August. They did not announce it publicly, they just quietly modified a standard for acceptance. According to a report in USA Today, “People with a history of self-mutilation, bipolar disorder, depression, and drug and alcohol abuse can now seek waivers to join the Army under an unannounced policy.”

“The decision to open Army recruiting to those with mental health conditions comes as the service faces the challenging goal of recruiting 80,000 new soldiers by the end of September, 2018.” With a big goal like that to reach, you find a way to broaden your pool of applicants. What’s interesting is, this is not new. Last year the Army softened their standard, allowing recruits with lower academic scores to file waivers. They also increased the number of waivers for candidates with marijuana use.”

Why is this newsworthy?

The obvious answer to this question lies in the fact that accepting recruits with mental health issues puts both the recruits and the existing military personnel in a precarious position. According to former Army psychiatrist, Colonel Elspeth Ritchie, “People with a history of mental health problems are more likely to have those issues resurface than those who do not,” she said. “It’s a red flag, but just how big of a red flag is it?”

Great question.

At the same time, if we needed to respond to a situation with North Korea or in an ISIS controlled region, the Army might tend to accept almost anyone who’s interested. You may remember that a 2012 study reported by Condoleezza Rice and educator Joel Klein revealed that 75 percent of America’s youth were not even fit for the military—due to criminal records, obesity, and failure to graduate.

Wow. What’s a recruiter to do?

Balancing High Standards with High Goals

So where do we strike a balance? My guess is, you’ve been faced with your own dilemma working with young people. You begin with a high standard, because you want to challenge them to rise to the occasion. You believe in them and know they can meet that standard if they try hard enough. Unfortunately, however, so many of today’s young people—loaded with talent and potential—disqualify themselves early on, by doing something stupid, or by not believing in themselves, or by just plain giving up too early. Some common scenarios are:

  • You need twelve leaders to serve on the student council, but only seven girls even run for office. Do you lower the standard?
  • You’ve held a standard for scores on your exams for years, but this year, you feel you either need to relax the standard or grade on a curve.
  • You hold tryouts for the sports team and use a grit score to evaluate their stamina and discipline. Only three players pass it. Do you toss the scorecard?
  • You still need five more male resident advisors on your campus, but the only candidates left have records of DUI’s and poor conduct. What do you do?

The balance, of course, lies somewhere between two views. You must consider how to demonstrate the grace of offering second chances to those who’ve failed (or who have been guilty of an offense), yet still hold your standard of performance high enough that students must strive to reach it. Good leaders and educators exhibit leadership that is both:

1. Supportive – This is about relationships, not just rules. I believe in you.

2. Challenging – This is also about results and standards. I believe in you.

The Answer May Lie in the Middle

So, do you lower the standard or lower your goal? The answer to that question may just lie somewhere in the middle. Sometimes, you’ll find a percentage of students that desperately need you to adjust the target to encourage them to continue to try. In other words, you temporarily lower the standard. At other times, you must resolve that the standard should not be lowered; it is exactly what you should hold students accountable to reach. You will simply have fewer students reach it this year.

Back in the 1940s, Henrietta Mears served UCLA students who attended her college department at First Presbyterian Church Hollywood. She set high standards for student leaders there, and there were a number of years that her students just could not meet that standard. In those years, she determined to be satisfied with fewer student leaders, rather than lower the bar and undermine her belief in the sacredness of those leadership positions. The result? There were a number of stellar leaders who graduated from her mentorship and went on to be world changers. She set the bar high and it paid off.

So, what are your thoughts? Please leave a brief comment and share how you’ve handled this issue of lowering your goal or lowering your standard.


  1. A. May on December 7, 2017 at 2:25 pm

    It’s “waivers” not “wavers.”

    • K on October 31, 2019 at 9:24 am

      shake with a quivering motion; become unsteady or unreliable.
      “the flame wavered in the draft”; “his love for her had never wavered”


  2. Chris Arend on October 29, 2019 at 10:23 am

    Great article. Making the decision to lower the bar or keep it should not be a singular action. Both should be followed by a plan to help legitimatize the “waiver” and show the others who qualified that their accomplishments are not diminished. I think our youth want high standards but need opportunities for grace to prove people believe in them.
    We can hold those who were provided a waiver accountable through some sort of probation and extra oversight to help them work through their deficiencies from the original standards set. Making a decision to lower or waive a requirement is baring our head in the sand as to why the standard existed. Most standards are in place because there is a high correlation to success for the person once in the position. If you lower the standard, what is your safe guard for the person you exposed to the waiver? It may require more effort to create safe guards but these safe guards are for both sides of the decision. Believe the best in others potential but do not do it without realistic safeguards and touch points along the way. You will be doing both sides a favor in the long run.

    • Chris Arend on October 29, 2019 at 10:28 am

      Baring = burying:) I don’t want the grammar police to get upset.

  3. Cindy on October 29, 2019 at 11:54 am

    I certainly think being intentional about creating positive and meaningful relationships is vital.This is absolutely necessary if we expect students to work hard for us…literally the most important ingredient in working with young people. With that being said, I don’t think standards or expectations should be lowered. I think if anything, we need to keep the expectations high and possibly raise them. We must lay the groundwork of relationships. Once established, I feel that we can help students move out of their comfort zone and into a growth mindset of resilience that will enable them to realize their potential and the value they can add to their involvements.
    As an educator, I have noticed that parents tend to rescue their kids, protecting them from failing and stunting their growth at the same time. As educators, we must push back against this pattern, help parents realize the potential of their children.

  4. Debra on October 29, 2019 at 4:48 pm

    I’ve read that minority kids with B+ averages and good-but-not-stellar SAT scores were able to do well when they were admitted to competitive Ivy League schools. The kids have to demonstrate some potential to begin with, but when you set the bar too high you eliminate some people who will be able to rise to the occasion.

  5. Stephen Burnette on November 1, 2019 at 8:03 pm

    I, today, as a coach, thought to pair students off with those most near to them in skill / ability / speed / talent. Perhaps grouping them in two or three and encouraging them to work hard to perform hard would get more of the students participating with a more achievable goal. A p.e. student with a 6 minute mile will make the 8 minute mile runner feel like never trying to catch up to equal the fastest in the class, but if he is paired with one or two others with a very near finishing time, they may get inspired to be the best of the 3.

    Realistic expectations for each student is needed also, instead of believing everyone in the class can come close to achieving your goals.

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Do You Lower the Standard or Lower Your Goal?