Firm but Fair Leadership

There are hundreds of assessments for leaders. The content and quality of these assessments vary greatly. You can spend a lot of time and money taking surveys to tell you the quality of your leadership.

There are a few leading indicators that can be used to give a pretty good picture of the overall quality of your leadership. These are not good for diagnosing problems or specifying corrective action, but they can tell you where you stand quickly. Here is one of my favorite ways to measure a leader’s skills.

Firm but Fair

Great leaders know how to navigate the minefield of being compassionate but have a sense of discipline within the organization. It really is a delicate balance. You need to make accommodations in some circumstances and draw a firm line in others.

We have all seen leaders who are too eager to please. They bend over backwards to be accommodating to the needs of people in the organization. Their objective is to ensure everyone is “happy” almost all the time.

In return, people take advantage of the leader and make more requests for special consideration. Also, since people can observe the concessions made by the leader with other people, a sense of equity demands that when a similar situation comes up the same concession is extended to others.

Before long, the leader has lost all sense of control. In a desperate attempt to regain order, the leader tries to draw lines in the sand. This is annoying to people who have become accustom to a more lax interpretation of the rules. So, being too accommodating is dangerous. When you try to hold the line later, people tend to resent it.

On the flip side, going too much “by the book” gains one a reputation for being a hard ass. That reputation limits the amount of discretionary effort people are willing to expend. If a leader shows no compassion for the typical tight spots people find themselves in, he becomes an ogre that demands respect through command and control. Scrooge, before his transformation, was a good example of this kind of leader.

Neither of these extremes is desirable. The “sweet spot” is to have a reputation for being firm with application of the rules, but compassionate as well and willing to be flexible in extreme cases. Also, be cognizant of the need for fairness. This implies putting a damper on the issue of playing favorites. I have written elsewhere on the issue of favorites.

Briefly, we need to recognize that we cannot avoid having favorites within any population. We are human beings. What the great leader does is show in many ways that, even though there are favorites, he does not “play favorites.” To avoid this, the leader tries to treat each person as a favorite and operates outside his comfort zone for some small percentage of the time.

In their excellent book, Triple Crown Leadership, Bob and Gregg Vanourek use the analogy of “steel and velvet.” They point out that the best leaders flex between being firm like steel and showing care, like velvet. Their thesis is that being velvet all the time leads to weak leadership, but being steel all the time leads to disgruntled workers who comply but are not engaged in the work.

One obvious thing that some leaders miss is that being firm implies having standards. Neither of the extremes in this dimension is advisable. On the one hand, you can have a burdensome employee manual with thousands of rules that people find hard to remember. If you find yourself “hiding behind” the employee manual when making decisions on personal requests, you may be in danger of over doing the bureaucratic mumbo jumbo.

On the other extreme is the office where there are no formal rules, and “we just try to always do what is right.” That condition is a slippery slope, because without some form of standards people don’t know what to expect. They push the limits until things get way out of control.

The optimum position is to have a crisp and concise set of expectations, and everyone should know they are enforced. People should also be aware that there are emergency situations where a rule can be waived, but those situations are rare. Knowing when to grant an exception is what puts the art in leadership. In general it is best to lean toward the formal side but be willing to flex when required.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow Inc., a company dedicated to growing leaders. He speaks and conducts seminars on building trust in organizations. He can be reached at bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585-392-7763.

2 Responses to Firm but Fair Leadership

  1. Altaye Ayele says:

    I agree on what you discussed.

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