How to be a Consistent Leader and Avoid Leading Like a Burning Porcupine
Updated: Oct 8
I've known leaders who were friendly, welcoming and understanding. They received bad news well and were patient when people made mistakes.
And I've known leaders who were prickly, angry and impatient. They received bad news like a porcupine on fire and yelled relentlessly when people made mistakes. For the record, I've never seen a burning porcupine, but I envision a burning ball of fire sending quills every which way. (Please don't set a porcupine on fire to see if I'm right.)
But when leaders switch unexpectedly between both personalities, they become inconsistent leaders.
A Tale of an Inconsistent Leader
I had the misfortune of working for an inconsistent leader once. I never knew who I was going to get. Her mood changed by the hour and made life incredibly difficult for my coworkers and me.
To people who didn’t know her, my boss was inspiring. She met with each new employee in person and talked about her expectations and the leadership qualities she valued in people. She made them feel like she personally welcomed each and every person who walked through the door.
I attended a leadership course she taught and after she listed out 50 traits of great leaders, the guy next to me leaned over and whispered, “Sounds like she knows her stuff. She must be a great leader to work for.”
I gave a noncommittal shrug.
Because this "great leader" was the person who in one breath would congratulate me on a job well done, then berate me for something that I had no control over.
And at a meeting where one of our physicians briefed her on something she found displeasing, she yelled at him and made a big fuss in front of everyone present. Once his briefing was complete, he asked to leave because he had patients scheduled. She refused and made him to sit through the rest of the meeting.
Another time, she stopped by my work area just minutes before the end of the work day. She lined us up in the hallway and started berating us. She was furious about a problem that we didn't cause, nor was it a problem that was our responsibility to solve. This went on for 30 minutes and it was demoralizing.
But when she was happy, she was actually pleasant to be around.
My coworkers and I tip-toed around her office to gauge which personality she had that day. We would make eye contact with her secretary and watch for the barely perceptible head nod or shake and decide our next steps accordingly.
Who would choose to work for someone like this?
Leaders Who are Unpredictable are Difficult to Follow
I would rather work for someone who was consistently a tyrant than someone who switched back and forth between personalities at the drop of a hat. At least I’d know what to expect.
Leaders who are unpredictable are difficult to work for. Don’t be that kind of person. And no, consistently inconsistent doesn’t count. Unless you’re talking about your habits when it comes to visiting your people, you don’t want to be inconsistent.
Be So Consistent That You Become Predictable
As a leader, you should make it a habit to be consistent.
When my kids are doing something they shouldn’t do, they’ll sneak a look at me to see my reaction. When I ask them, “What do you think I’m going to say,” they manage to look sheepish and predict verbatim what I would say.
This is what I mean about consistency. An employee shouldn’t have to guess how you’re going to react to good news or bad news. Preferably you don’t react poorly.
You should be so consistent that you become boring. Rarely should you be able to surprise anyone.
Consistency makes it easier for people to meet your expectations. If you always do what you say you’re going to do, it’s consistent. And it establishes a foundation for people to trust you.
It’s hard to trust someone who is inconsistent. And without trust, a leader will have no followers.
Tips on How to be a Consistent Leader:
1. Don’t take things personally
People react with greater passion when they take things personally. Here is an example of a leader taking things personally: A teammate delivers bad news about a setback with an ongoing project. The leader reacts by saying, "You're doing this on purpose! You're trying to make me look bad."
The thing is, it’s not about you. The world does not revolve around you just because of a position or rank you hold. You can’t control what the people around you say and do, but you can control what you say and do. If you don’t, and you take everything personally, you will be an inconsistent leader.
2. Pause before reacting
Take a moment to understand the situation and wait to react. Take a breath. Ask questions. Listen to what people have to say and try to understand it from their point of view. Gather your thoughts, pick your words carefully and control your response. Be mindful of your facial expressions as you're considering the information. If you say the first thing that comes to mind, your responses could run the gamut of positive or negative, making you an inconsistent leader.
3. Don’t be petty
Blake E. Ashforth talks about petty tyrants in his article Petty Tyranny in Organizations and describes them as people who lord their power over others. Petty people focus on the tiny and unimportant things. They are very focused on status and use their rank or position to get people to do things. However, if you have to rely on your position or rank to get things done, you’re already an ineffective leader.
It will show in your leadership style if you focus on the petty, unimportant things. It will cause you to make poor decisions and react in nonconstructive ways. Doing things only to make yourself look good because you feel threatened by a subordinate's talent is one example of petty behavior. Some petty tyrants may go as far as sabotaging someone on their own team to make themselves look good and keep the talented subordinate "in their place." Focusing on the unimportant can make you an inconsistent leader.
4. Reprimand in private
Negative feedback doesn’t get better with time. The sooner you can provide it, the sooner they can fix it.
But you're wrong if you think that it's acceptable to provide that negative feedback in front of a large group of people. There's always an appropriate place for negative feedback, and it's in private. Be deliberate with where and when you give constructive feedback.
If you offer it as soon as you think of it, whether it's during an executive meeting, at a break room or behind closed doors, you will appear as if you lack impulse control. The unpredictable nature of when and where you give feedback will make you an inconsistent leader.
5. Don’t be capricious
I think my vocabulary is fairly decent, but I had to look up the word capricious. It describes people who change their minds suddenly or unexpectedly without a good reason.
I get it, decision-making is tough. Sometimes you have to change your mind. But don’t do it without a reason, and don't waffle back and forth. People spend a lot of time and energy helping leaders make decisions and they work hard to execute what was decided. If you change your mind, it may not be so easy for them to switch gears.
If you do change your mind about a decision, be transparent about it. Take the time to explain your thought process and acknowledge this is different from what you originally wanted. Don't change your mind without telling anyone, then throw a fit when the outcome isn't aligned with the new direction. Failing to update anyone about changing your mind would make you an inconsistent leader.
6. Don’t play favorites
If you treat everyone with the same level of respect (yes, even that annoying guy from the basement) you can avoid falling into the pitfall of playing favorites. Treat everyone with the same level of respect and be inclusive of everyone, their ideas and what they bring to the table. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t address the work of anyone who is under-performing, but you can’t only favor the superior performers. And what happens if your darling employee falls out of favor with you? Do you start treating them differently? Treating people differently based on how you feel about them would make you an inconsistent leader.
7. Act the same in front of your boss as you do in front of your peers and subordinates
Have you ever seen those people who are sugar and spice and everything nice when their bosses are around, but the moment they’re alone with you, they couldn’t be bothered to acknowledge your presence? Or if they did, they’re mean and vile and you would have been better off if they just kept ignoring you. Don’t be that kind of person. Acting differently just because you think someone of importance is watching would make you an inconsistent leader.
People Like to Know What to Expect
In the end, consider how you come across to others. People like to know what to expect. When people can be reasonably certain about your reactions, you’ll have established yourself as a consistent leader.
Comment below: Please share a time when you worked with a leader who was inconsistent.