Is the leadership value of consistency and steadiness a myth, or is it rooted in some data that shows that organizations are better off when run by leaders who take a methodical, steady, strategic approach to guiding the entity? We are certainly seeing a lot of conflicting examples about consistency on the world and organizational stage today. Are virtues like consistency, respect for others and level-headedness outdated, still valid, or both?
As it turns out the jury’s in on this one, case after case show that, if one has to choose between taking a methodical approach or reacting quickly to a current context, discipline and steadiness are the more favorable virtues when it comes to results and leadership. Most recently, author John Manning’s book The Disciplined Leader talks about “the vital few” which are the 20% of management practices effective leaders use to create 80% of their organization’s success. Manning lay’s-out 52 clear examples of how discipline is a winning strategy for leaders in even the most tumultuous of times. He thinks consistency both in word and deed is still a virtue.I’m not even going to lay out all the academic research on this one. It’s there, call it “steadiness” or “egoless” or “impervious to short term set-backs” the research says these traits are among the most valued for real leaders.
Outside of the world of business, there are lots of examples for how being steady and predictable are a good thing. Take parenting: kids who grow up in homes with consistent behavioral rules and where love is not withheld by the parents regardless of the child’s behavior tend to be more secure as adults. Think about this “and/both” behavior: environments where love is a constant and is not used as a tool to manipulate or motivate AND when behavioral rules are consistently followed create more secure kids.
There are three things that I think are noteworthy about these findings: first, they are as true today as they were 50 years ago when psychologists and educators started studying consistency and structure and it’s impacts on kids/learners; second, that withholding love, approval or affection is more likely to create instability that it is to create positive behavior change and third; that structure – the way the home or by extension the classroom or even the organization is structured in terms of behavioral norms and rules – helps people be successful.
“Wait a minute” you might be saying, “you were talking about kids and home and parenting and now you’re talking about organizations.” You might ask “Is the connection valid?” What do you think?
How do your employees respond to being treated with unconditional respect? If they make mistakes, do you calmly and consistently hold them accountable with or without guilt and shame? Assuming their mistakes are one-offs and not chronic, which approach tends to create a more trustworthy employees: pulling them off a project or task when they blow it or using a mistake as a learning opportunity?
In the language of organizational structure, this discussion is called the “carrot or the stick” paradox; the idea that you can get people to do what you need them to do by rewarding them (the carrot) or by scaring them (the stick). Of course, the carrot approach works better over the long term, but the stick is all too frequently seen as a viable strategy because it produces immediate positive results. The problem is, the results don’t last; people who are subjected to the stick either become so compliant that they become unable to take independent action at work, or they just quietly and permanently leave for a job where they are more likely to be valued and appreciated.
At some point early in their careers most leaders either try motivating others as their parents motivated them, or they work to compensate for the way they were parented as a child and use their negative childhood experiences to inform how they lead differently at work. In either case, experience is a great teacher. What’s scary is a leader who uses a shaming and blaming approach and thinks it works or is somehow justified by the employee’s behavior. Even worse is the leader who by some fluke of privilege has never been held to account for the impacts of their behavior on others and are able to convince themselves that their approach is justified, even preferred.
Emotionally grounded leaders who demonstrate consistency and care even when things go poorly create organizational cultures that are high-trust, resilient and creative. They take a longer view of strategy and people development and invest in building people-up, not breaking them down.
Of course, being consistent isn’t the be all/end all of leadership traits, but it’s a great place to start, especially when it is coupled with creating a plan that unites people and creates focus. Do you show-up as a consistent presence for the people you lead? Do you stick to your own rules and values or conveniently flex them when sticking to them is hard? Either way, what’s the impact of your actions on your employees?