When we step into positions of leadership, we make a whole set of promises we may not know we are making. These promises are profound and come in the form of high, often unspoken expectations. Understanding, managing, and living up to these promises defines our leadership.
We all expect great things from our leaders, and these expectations constitute the Promise of Leadership. Leadership expectations come in two forms:
Explicit: expressed expectations for certain outcomes that come with the role of the leader and that show up in the leader’s job description (things like fiscal responsibility, accountability, strategy, and execution);
Implicit: unspoken expectations that stakeholders have of their leaders (things like competence, fair treatment, commitment, engagement, listening, acting on suggestions, and providing meaning and direction). Leaders rarely understand the impact these implicit expectations have on their perceived effectiveness.
Organizations succeed or fail depending on whether or not their leaders clarify their roles and goals, understand the impact that implicit expectations have on their perceived effectiveness, and keep their promises. Constituents judge their leaders’ effectiveness on both explicit and implicit expectations, even when these expectations are unrealistic or misunderstood. When a leader steps into a role, followers usually believe: I expect that you, as my leader, will fulfill both my explicit and implicit expectations (and thus keep your Promise of Leadership). However, since these expectations are often unrealistic or unexpressed, leaders may feel that they are set up to fail in their efforts to fulfill the perceived promise of leadership.
Leaders can discover the explicit and implicit expectations that people have of them by asking those who work with and for them about their expectations of them. All leaders can accelerate their progress towards effectiveness by asking, learning, and then managing expectations, thus, allowing the expectations to become the bar by which they are measured.
We all have high expectations of our leaders and hold them to very high standards. Few leaders, only 5 to 10 percent, fulfill the Promise of Leadership. When we ask people to identify the extraordinary leaders they have worked for or with, most cannot identify more than one or two.
Leaders who keep their promises boost performance, enhance their credibility, inspire and engage stakeholders, and build trust; those who break promises to constituents lose credibility and trust. Leaders who claim to value the talents and contributions of individuals, yet lead as if intelligence resides only at the top, are breaking a promise. Leaders who seek near-term profits at the expense of sustainability and long-term growth are breaking a promise. Leaders who avoid discussing potential pitfalls during a change initiative are breaking a promise. Leaders who do not make it safe to fail are breaking a promise. Leaders who are unclear in their messaging, avoid difficult situations, or react defensively to feedback are breaking a promise. When a promise of leadership is neglected or unfulfilled, trust is broken and performance erodes.
Four Universal Promises of Leadership
From our research and experience, we have identified four universal promises of leadership: 1) Set the right direction and create meaningful work; 2) Engage all stakeholders and hold them accountable for performance; 3) Ensure that processes and systems facilitate focus and execution; and 4) Lead effectively—maintain relationships of trust to achieve desired results.
Making and Keeping Promises
While most senior leaders are familiar with the terms, few see them as promises and hence often break them and suffer the sad consequences. When Promise 1 is broken, the organization fails to be competitive and thus declines. When Promise 2 is broken, employees underperform, turnover increases, competition wins market share, and the organization declines. When Promise 3 is broken, dollars, human capital, and time are wasted; the organization becomes mired in a culture of resentment and hopelessness and ultimately declines. And if Promise 4 is broken, there is no chance of meeting Promises 1, 2, and 3.
When you make a promise or commit to do something, in effect you are making a contract between your Current Self and your Future Self. Such “contracts” are not easy to keep. For example, your Sunday Self may want to go to the gym three times this week, but your Monday Self wants to break the contract to get an extra hour of sleep.
You are more likely to follow through on your promises when: the terms of the commitment are clear and specific, other people know about it (beyond those whose love for you is unconditional), and your Future Self loses something for failing to follow through. To fulfill the Promise of Leadership, leaders must know what people expect of them, manage those expectations, and perform against them.
The Leadership Agenda
The Promise of Leadership puts a premium on leadership development. These four promises and the level of effectiveness (if not mastery) that they require—individually and collectively—constitute the Leadership Agenda for the organization. This Agenda needs to be held by the Top Team and led as a key strategic priority and business imperative. The performance of the business—as well as the meaning and value creation of everyone associated with the business—depends on it.
We know that leaders are not just born—they are made. They learn and develop over time. Great leaders can be cultivated to meet and exceed our high expectations of them. When this happens, execution is extraordinary—performance is high, stakeholders are engaged, and work is fun and fulfilling.
Excerpted from Mastering Leadership: An Integrated Framework for Breakthrough Performance and Extraordinary Business Results, by Robert J. Anderson and William A. Adams (Wiley, 2015)