The mantle of leadership is bound to a set of unspoken promises. These promises are born out of the paradigm followers develop about the role of “leader” and are shaped by society, personal experience and individual priorities and values. They may vary somewhat based on context or culture but the important thing to remember is that these promises are very real and always active. No amount of rationalizing or excuse-making will free us from the implications they represent.
You might call them “table stakes”.
When these promises are clarified, understood and reflected in our actions the results are trust, support and influence. When they are not…the game is over before we even begin talking about change, vision, goals, etc.
From the Perspective of the Follower
“You promise to operate with the same level of accountability that you expect from me.”
“You promise to live by the values you tell me are important to our organization.”
“You promise to tackle the issues or questions you tell me you will address and keep me informed.”
“You promise to listen to me without checking your email or taking phone calls and give attention to my ideas.”
“You promise to be consistent in how you enforce organizational standards and yet treat me as unique.”
“You promise to help me focus my time and energy on the things you said were most important.”
“You promise to keep the things we discuss in confidence, confidential.”
“You promise to give me a chance to prove myself trustworthy and then give me the freedom and resources needed to do my job.”
“You promise to let me learn from my mistakes rather than treat me as a failure.”
How Do We Know?
If we truly want to know which promises we are being held to, with or without our agreement, the best approach might be to sit down with our team and simply ask. Conversations along this line can be quite enlightening for all parties since these “promises” generally operate at a subconscious level until they are triggered by something in the environment. Another benefit is the opportunity to bring our expectations into the open so that an effective and co-created working agreement can be established.
I remember one particular experience from early in my career that demonstrates how these promises can appear to be in conflict depending on the context. An employee on my team routinely challenged me on whether or not I was being consistent in how I enforced the standards for work and behavior within the team. This belief was rooted in the perception that I did not follow the same approach with every person. Because I felt the need to keep my individual performance discussions confidential, (another promise), I really had no means to “prove” otherwise.
The day came when he was faced with a difficult conversation resulting from a violation of the attendance policy. Suddenly his expectations shifted from my being consistent to arguing that I should consider his unique circumstances and make an exception because, after all, it’s only fair to appreciate that “every situation is different”. Knowing his expectations of leadership enabled me to bring the conversation full circle and reach a resolution that was both fair and consistent.
We are rarely going to effectively meet all the unspoken promises that come with our role as leaders but by understanding that those expectations exist and factoring them into our choices we can avoid the problems and pitfalls that distract the team from the more critical mission.
What step will you take today to make sure you are keeping your leadership promises?