Fickle Food

As I watched the responses this week to a certain coach leaving a certain football program, I was reminded of this quote:

“Fame is a fickle food upon a shifting plate.”

Emily Dickenson

It is not unusual for a leader to be a hero one minute and a scourge the next. Did the character of the leader change significantly with a single decision, or was their popularity the only thing that really shifted?

Leaders are constantly faced with decisions that will likely make some people happy and, at the same time, upset others. Without a reliable framework from which to make decisions, we are likely to bend to the pressure of popular opinion and choose unwisely. Since we are incapable of making everyone happy all the time, our motivation for our choices becomes the most crucial aspect of our leadership.

The most accurate predictor of future behavior is past actions. This does not mean that people are incapable of change. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that people will most often do what they have practiced consistently. This makes our daily choices significant as they shape our most likely response when faced with big decisions that have momentous potential consequences.

Practice doesn’t make perfect; it just ingrains whatever you are practicing. So, what should leaders practice if they desire to create a culture that values every individual equally? What is the framework that creates a solid foundation that will support us when the pressure is on?

Let’s start with respect. Respect is understanding that someone is important and should be treated in an appropriate way. Leaders who value others intrinsically and equally show respect in little ways every day. Being on time (or better, early) to meetings. Putting down your cell phone or closing your laptop while someone is talking to you. Doing what you say you will do, without excuse.

Next, we might work on trustworthiness. Trustworthiness is about dependability and reliability. Think about the people in your life that you trust. Why do you trust them? Most likely, it is because they have consistently demonstrated they have your back. They come through even when it costs them. They are honest with you about themselves and about you.

Then there is fairness. I used to tell my kids, “The fair is in September,” but the fairness we’re talking about here is a lack of favoritism toward one side or another. We are not all the same, but we are all equal. This should impact how we structure our policies and how we interact within our communities.

Finally, we should include caring or empathy. Empathy is being aware of, and sensitive to, the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of others. Empathy impacts the choices we make as well as the way we communicate those choices. It is rather difficult to care about another person if you are unable or unwilling to understand what life feels like for them and the way your behaviors impact them.

You may notice that all these fall into the realm of character qualities. Character is not something we are born with; it is something we learn and practice. Football players spend a significant amount of their practice time repeating basic actions. It is the almost effortless competence in these building blocks that allows them to complete complex plays in a game. Likewise, we practice and develop character in small everyday interactions. With this foundation in place, we find ourselves prepared to make larger and more complex decisions using the character we are accustomed to.

I don’t know the coach I mentioned above. Neither do most of the people who a few weeks ago were singing his praise and now are condemning him. What I do know is that the choices he made before and the choices he made recently are all in line with who he is as a person. I know this because it is true for everyone. We all make mistakes from time to time, but over time, we will do consistently what our character guides us to do.

As leaders, the decisions we make impact a lot of people. Unfortunately, they are also visible to a lot of people, many of whom have very little real understanding of what is going on. If we make decisions based on trying to satisfy a hunger to be popular, we will find ourselves stuffed at times and starving at others. There is, however, a table spread with food that is truly satisfying and nourishing to our soul. That table is found when we have practiced consistent character and make the best decisions we can with respect, trustworthiness, fairness, and care – which is, of course, The Kimray Way.