March 21, 2022

Don’t move the goal posts: Delivering on what you promise as a leader

As part of my coaching work, I often lean on leadership lessons from my own years in academic medicine. The takeaway I turn to most often? The importance of developing a clear framework for making and communicating decisions – and then sticking to that framework so I can build trust, stability and loyalty.

In short: Clarify the rules of the game. And then don’t move the goal posts.

When you’re the decider-in-chief

When I first became a department chair, I spent a lot of time creating transparency around how I would make decisions. I described my new position as a role of stewardship over the department’s people, space, equipment and other resources. I shared that my leadership would seek to balance those resources and the needs of all who shared them, and I vowed to explain my decisions (confidentiality permitting) to everyone involved.

I was inspired to do this by a leader in my own life, who shared with me the importance of understanding the principles by which I would operate and the need to set a clear tone for my tenure on day 1. It’s a leadership lesson I have applied in every new role since then.

When you set a framework like this, you create stability by helping people know what to expect from you. Over time, you build trust and then loyalty. People may not always like your decisions, but if they know how you make them and why, they will respect your role as decision maker.

Unless you do something to lose that respect.

Don’t move the goal posts

When I was just starting that role as department chair, a senior colleague pulled me aside and gave me some of the best leadership advice I’ve ever received. She said, “people will trust you as long as they think you are being fair. As soon as they decide you are being unfair, you will lose their trust. And you may never get it back.”

The fastest way to lose that trust is by setting rules like my framework for making decisions — and then breaking them.

Suppose I am approached by someone in my department who wants to invest in a costly piece of lab equipment. In my stewardship role, I have oversight of the department budget – money that a lot of people would like to have for their research, teaching and learning. Let’s assume I can’t justify spending money on this equipment when I apply my stewardship lens. I explain my decision and invite the faculty member to put in a request again next year. That’s what I said I would do when I explained how I would operate, and it’s fair.

Alternatively, suppose that even though my stewardship mindset doesn’t allow me to justify this spending, I want to make it happen anyway. Maybe this person is a squeaky wheel whose requests I would like to be done with. Or maybe she is a prominent researcher I want to keep happy so she doesn’t leave. If I were willing to stray from my stewardship model, I could look at pulling back money that has been promised to someone else. Or borrowing from a rainy-day fund. Or some other back-channel approach that would make this purchase happen, even though it hasn’t met my criteria for funding. My faculty member would be pretty happy with me … but how would everyone else feel?

Perplexed. Disillusioned. Maybe even burned. Because the rules of the game were clear. Until they weren’t.

Why you need goal posts in the first place

This may sound like a lot of thinking about thinking when you have other things demanding your time and focus. But I believe one of the most important ways you can prepare for the challenges of leading teams and organizations is to create and then consistently use a clear framework for making the tough calls.

A lot of leaders learn this very quickly. It’s much easier to make difficult decisions when you have a clear set of principles to guide you. In fact, one of my most consistently popular posts on this blog describes how to create a leadership manifesto, which is essentially a framework for who you intend to be as a leader. It’s something even experienced leaders need to continually revisit and revise, because they are always learning, growing and evolving. I’m not surprised people return to this resource.

Building a team that wins

When I was planning this post, I started thinking about why it’s important to do all this work to create a culture of fairness. Some of it is obvious. Nothing feels good about a workplace that has different rules for different people. But I think the rewards are far greater than just the stability of knowing how the game is played and that it’s played fairly.

Leadership is a lot of things, but it is fundamentally about making decisions and creating systems that affect your colleagues, your employees and the direction of your institution. The relationships you have with those around you will make or break those decisions and systems. And they will make or break your success as a leader.

They may also yield some of the most meaningful moments of your career.

In fact, that’s what happened to me. I will never forget one particular conversation with a colleague who was commenting on my leadership. While my style is not particularly flashy or colorful, there is a lot to be said for transparency and consistency.

At least, that’s what I think my colleague was saying when she told me this: “I would follow you to the gates of hell and back.”

That was a good day. I knew I was living my own principles and that this person truly trusted me. No leader can ask for more.

Unlock your potential and align with what matters most to you. 

It’s that simple.

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