Being fair can be the hardest thing

When you hit the tough stuff as a leader; perhaps it's someone not performing, or being an a%@ehole or maybe you have to make some really hard calls to ensure the sustainability of your organisation - it's really freaking hard. For everyone. If you've seen someone who looks like they're breezing through it; in my experience they never are. Doing hard things is always hard. In fact, there should be a special deliverable in every leaders’ job description, right at the top: 'to do the uncomfortable, brave, vulnerable things no one really wants to do'.

We frame leadership in the context of shiny things - the potential for exciting outputs and a seat at the table, opportunities to represent and show our brilliance off. We oversell it to the degree that new managers are often shocked to find that the shiny bits are few and far between. It's a little terrifying to realise that real respect as a leader comes from what you do when the chips are down.

That you earn it by speaking truth to power - and not just to your boss or your Board but speaking truth too to those powerful people in your team, to your powerful peers.

  • You earn it by owning your mistakes.

  • By giving credit.

  • By being kind even when it doesn't serve you.

  • By being loyal to your team and, conversely, by owning your and your team's failures where they're real.

  • By supporting your team members and junior leaders when they need help rather than scapegoating them.

  • By not promoting people in the first place if you know in your heart they’ll be out of their depth and being honest with them about why.

I come across so many lovely people managers – I include CEOs in this group- who are 'good humans' - who hope – really, really hope- that if they just hold out for the best in someone who isn’t performing or whose conduct is poor, that they will come good. They almost never do when this is the strategy – we’re all self-interested beings. If someone is already taking an inch keep in mind that past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour … they’re almost always going to take that mile you’re offering up through inaction.

Leaders who earn respect show the way, set boundaries, are kind, but also, perhaps hardest of all, are fair. To not act in this way builds distrust and complexity and compounds problems to a degree that they are often not resolvable unless you go right back and start where you should have begun; being a bit brave, saying want you really want, need and expect, by drawing fair and solid boundaries. By acting on promised consequences.

It’s hard and it’s uncomfortable and it means doing things that threaten your sense of belonging and acceptance. And while I don’t espouse having to be cruel to be kind … you do have to be fair. And fair is often harder than cruel.