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.