Leadership Barometer 68 Firm but Fair

October 18, 2020

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 measures.

Firm but Fair

The book “Triple Crown Leadership” was coauthored by my friends Bob Vanourek and his son, Gregg. In the book, they stress that great leaders have the ability to flex between “steel” and “velvet.”

They are firm and unyielding on matters of principle or values, but they also display a softer more human side when dealing with some people issues.

Great leaders have this ability to flex, and they also know when to do it. If an issue has to do with certain characteristics (like integrity, safety, ethics, honesty) it is a mistake to bend the rules, even just a little. But, if the issue has to do with showing people you care and want to be fair to people, then on those issues you can flex to show you value these things too.

It is a mistake to take a hard line on every decision and always go “by the book.” Some leaders feel it is essential to maintain control by having a firm hand on the tiller. They often lose the respect of people because they show no human side.

It is also a mistake to be too soft and basically ignore important principles or rules. This posture will also cause a loss of respect.

To get the right balance, great leaders let people know they will be steel on some things and velvet on other things. This causes higher respect and also leads to higher trust within the organization.

One important caution on this philosophy is that you need to establish a predictable pattern for when to flex. If you do something for one person and not another, then you will be tagged as playing favorites, which always lowers trust. If it is unclear to people why you are being hard on one issue and soft on another, then you are going to confuse people, which also lowers trust.

I always found it helpful to explain to people why I am taking a hard line on some visible issue. For example, I might say, “We cannot allow this slitter to run with this safety interlock compromised. Even though we really need the production right now, we will never jeopardize the safety of our workers.”

Once you have established a track record for making the right choices, it is not as important to explain your rationale for each one. The way to tell is to watch the body language of people. If they look confused when you make a decision, then always explain your rationale.

If there is ever any push back on a hard or soft decision, listen to the input carefully before proceeding. Keep in mind that your perspective is not the entire story. There may be other worthy opinions.

Show by your consistent actions over time that you stand for certain things, but always be willing to listen to and consider contrary opinions. Then when you make a final decision, let people know why you went that direction. If you do that, you will grow trust consistently.


Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow Inc., a company dedicated to growing leaders. He speaks and conducts seminars on building trust in organizations.


Stop Enabling Problem Employees

November 7, 2010

In any organization, there are situations where supervisors accommodate problem employees rather than confront them. Ignoring wrong actions models a laissez faire attitude on problem solving and enforcing rules. It also enables the perpetrator to continue the wrong behavior. In a typical scenario, the problem festers under the surface for months, even years. Ultimately escalation of the issue reaches a tipping point when something simply must be done. By this time, the problems are so horrendous they are many times more difficult to tackle.

A common example is when workers stretch break times from the standard 20 minutes to more than 30 minutes actually sitting in the break room. The total duration is more like 45 minutes from the time work stops until it resumes. The supervisor does not want to appear to be a “by the book” manager, so the problem is ignored every day. When things get too far out of control, the unfortunate supervisor is forced to play the bad guy, and everyone suffers a major loss in morale.

I once worked in a unit where one person suffered from acute alcoholism. His abusive behavior was enabled because his supervisor did not dare confront him. Finally the situation became intolerable. When they called him in to confront the facts, he had been out of control for 15 years. His reaction to the manager was, “What took you guys so long?” Following months of treatment, he became sober and was able to go on with his life as a positive contributor. Unfortunately, he was old enough by that time to retire; the organization had acted too late to gain much benefit from his recovery. The problem was clear, yet for years nothing was done.

In every organization, there are situations like this (not just health issues – tardiness, too many smoke breaks, or abusing the internet are typical examples). Leaders often ignore the problem, hoping it will go away. The advice here is to remember the comment made by my friend, “What took you guys so long?” and intervene when the problems are less acute and the damage is minor. In his case, that would have been a blessing; the man died a few months after retiring.

Taking strong action requires courage that many leaders simply do not have. They rationalize the situation with logic like:

• Maybe the problem will correct itself if I just leave it alone.
• Perhaps I will be moved sometime soon, and the next person can deal with this.
• Confronting the issue would be so traumatic that it would do more harm than good.
• We have already found viable workaround measures, so why rock the boat now?
• We have bigger problems than this. Exposing this situation would be a distraction from our critical work.

The real dilemma is knowing the exact moment to intervene and how to do it in a way that preserves trust with the individual and the group. Once you let someone get away with a violation, it becomes harder to enforce a rule the next time. The art of supervision is knowing how to make judgments that people interpret as fair, equitable, and sensitive. The best time to intervene is when the issue first arises. As a supervisor, you need to make the rules known and follow them yourself with few and only well-justified exceptions. It is not possible to treat everyone always the same, but you must enforce the rules consistently in a way that people recognize is both appropriate and disciplined.

Be alert for the following symptoms in your area of control. If you observe these, chances are you are enabling problem employees.

• Recognition that you are working around a “problem”
• Accusations that you are “playing favorites”
• Individuals claiming they do not understand documented policies
• Backroom discussions of how to handle a person who is out of control
• Denial or downplaying an issue that is well known in the area
• Fear of retaliation or sabotage if rules are enforced
• Cliques forming to protect certain individuals
• Pranks or horseplay perpetrated on some individuals

These are just a few signals that someone is being enabled and that you need to step up to the responsibility of being the enforcer.

Sometimes supervisors inherit an undisciplined situation from a previous weak leader. It can be a challenge to get people to follow rules they have habitually ignored. One idea is to get the group together and review company policy or simply ask what the rules are in this organization. Often people do not know the policies, or pretend they do not know, because the application of rules has been eclectic. This void gives you a perfect opportunity to restate or recast the rules to start fresh. It can be done as a group exercise to improve buy-in. When people have a hand in creating the rules, they tend to remember and follow them better. If you are not a new leader but are in a situation where abuse has crept in, using this technique and taking responsible action can help you regain control and credibility.

The reward for making the tough calls is that people throughout the organization will respect you. Problems will be handled early when they are easier to correct. The downside of procrastinating on enforcement is that you appear weak, and people will continually push the boundaries.