Five Ways Inconsistency Hurts Leaders

Inconsistency LeadersLet’s get it on the table from the beginning: consistency is not universally good, and inconsistency is not universally bad.  After all, as Aldous Huxley so wisely pointed out, “Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are dead.”  Inconsistency is part of who we are when we’re learning and growing.  And many of the leaders we dislike are the ones who are completely consistent – in a mindset that won’t budge.

A leader’s inconsistency may represent open-mindedness, inclusiveness, or acceptance of new data.  But inconsistency in leadership can also be damaging to both the leader and to those she is leading.  How can you strike the right balance?

Here are five inconsistency traps for which leaders need to be on the lookout.

  1. “The last person who walked into his office….”.  One of the most common complaints we hear about leaders is that direction changes based on who most recently had his ear.  These leaders are seen as unable to make a decision and stick with it, and worse yet, unable to reason through a full set of data.  They leave their people believing that a firm direction is never actionable, because it may change without warning.  These leaders also often unwittingly invite influence wars among their people – a competition to see who can have the last word with the boss.
  2. Change junkies.  Some leaders are stimulated by upsetting the status quo, and thrive on experimentation.  But not everyone likes this constant state of rearranging the deck chairs.  A colleague once observed, “People flee unpredictable environments.”  That may not be universal, but continual change can be enervating.  It can sap the energy of people.  When a leader changes course too frequently, and people can’t ever feel settled into a routine, the leader can be viewed as a child playing with toys, not as an adult testing real-life options.
  3. All-inclusives.  In our work with leaders, we certainly preach the value of inclusivity in decision-making.  Yet when carried to an extreme of trying to appease every viewpoint, a leader has the potential to create serious inconsistencies in direction – and in the process, to satisfy no one.  Leaders whose need to be liked surpasses their need to get results are the ones who most often fall into this trap.  These leaders need to learn to manage input, not to have it manage them.
  4. Emotional landmines.  Leaders whose emotional reactions are inconsistent create paralysis.  When people don’t know if they’ll get a high-five or a dressing-down, they’ll take no risks.  Even when a leader is generally even-tempered, a sudden mood change or outburst can create uncertainty or fear.  Worse yet, because we all operate heavily on emotional memory, a leader’s emotional inconsistency creates a stronger emotional impact in those he leads, one that is harder to reverse even by a change in the leader’s behavior.
  5. Ethical inconsistency.  All of the other inconsistencies mentioned above are annoying and disruptive, but inconsistency in ethics is often fatal for a leader.  You can be the most respected leader in your organization, but an ethical slip can be extremely costly.  It brings all of your decisions and motivations into question.  This seems obvious, but leaders understand that there are not always hard-and-fast ethical dividing lines on every question, or those lines may not be obvious except in retrospect.  The consistency leaders can best demonstrate is to never ignore gut reactions and never rationalize to get a decision made quickly – and to always ask more questions and more trusted opinions when the decision treads into tricky territory.

So what is the value to a leader of consistency?  I’ll let two contemporary philosophers answer that question better than I can:

“Part of courage is simple consistency.” – Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal columnist.  A leader who has the courage to remain consistent – reasonably consistent – is a leader who demonstrates the courage of his or her convictions.  Inviting input, accepting change, and struggling with issues are part of the balancing act in demonstrating consistency – and courage is what it takes to decide when to mark the territory between being open and being fickle.

“Trust is built with consistency.” – Lincoln Chafee, governor of Rhode Island.  There is a payoff to leadership consistency – predictability builds trust.  When people can predict how you’ll react, when they know how you’ll operate, and when they can run with your decisions, they learn to trust you as a leader – and follow your lead with security.

Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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2 thoughts on “Five Ways Inconsistency Hurts Leaders

  1. I suppose it depends what you mean by a “leader”.
    Anyone who fell foul of any of the five points above is not, in my book, a leader. Or, at best, is someone whose reach exceeds their grasp.
    The sort of person described above as a leader sounds to me like someone who is in charge (eg, they take decisions). Being in charge is nothing to do with leadership, surely. One might hope that those who are in charge are leaders, but their being in charge doesn’t make them leaders any more than eating lunch makes someone a leader just because leaders eat lunch.

    I don’t buy the inconsistency thing – or, at least, I am not persuaded by the points made in the article.
    For example, I would expect a leader to treat his/her team members inconsistently. Each person has different needs as well as, presumably, having a particular role in the team. The interaction of the leader with each person needs therefore to be different.

    As for trust, people will trust you when you trust them, and no amount of consistency will make up for a boss’s lack of trust in their team.

  2. Pingback: Five Ways Inconsistency Hurts Leaders | Vernal Management Consultants | ANDRES SU

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