When the Walk Doesn’t Match the Talk

graduationIt’s ironic how daily life often provides some powerful examples of the disconnects between what’s espoused by a leader or leadership team and what’s really taking place. Recently, while attending my niece’s graduation ceremony at her well-regarded university in California, I experienced this in full splendor.

A key focus of this particular university is the concept of ‘justice for all’ in a changing society. Students are attracted to the university from across the globe because of this credo and many pursue coursework and work placements that support this philosophy. Whether the degrees are in business, science or the arts – students are encouraged to view their world, and act accordingly, through this particular lens.

On a beautiful Saturday morning, the entire graduation class of about 1,100 students was seated front and center in the university’s decorated football stadium to receive their well-deserved undergraduate degrees. Some 4,500 relatives, including parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends, were all gathered in anticipation of the big event. Flags from multiple countries waved from the hands of enthusiastic relatives in the stands.

After some opening comments, the keynote speaker, a high-profile Hollywood actor, celebrity and humanitarian, began his commencement address. His first comments, unscripted and highly passionate, were about an issue that had been simmering for some time at the university – the refusal of its leaders to allow collective bargaining for its dozens of lecturers and adjunct faculty. As pointed out to the assembled graduating class and audience, this was a blatant example of not living to espoused values. The students erupted in cheers of support: They clearly recognized the glaring discrepancy between “talk” and “walk.”

managing a teamWhile specific details were lacking for most of those in attendance, the university’s leadership took a major hit that morning. There’s undoubtedly more to the story, but clearly, something is amiss and the situation appears counter to all that the organization holds true.

In the reality of daily life, leaders and organizations may find themselves in situations where circumstances dictate a course of action that appears to run counter to what they’ve championed. So what options are there to avoid these situations in the first place, lessen the impact, and regain balance and alignment?

Here are key suggestions to close the gap when you find yourself in a similar situation:

1.) Be Wise in Your Choices

When you choose the aspirations, values and behaviours that really matter for you and your organization, be highly selective. Don’t succumb to the ‘flavour of the day’ – confirm that what you hold of value is meaningful and of real importance to you, your team and your organization. Ensure that these commitments can be ‘lived’ each and every day. Avoid the temptation to jump on board the latest trend and claim it as your own so that you’re seen as more progressive, innovative or successful.

2.) Anticipate Rub Points

After staking your ground, engage your team in identifying the likely situations and scenarios when those same values and behaviours may be challenging to demonstrate or could become compromised. Then challenge your assumptions and determine how adjustments can be made to better align your actions with stated commitments. Consider the cost of crossing boundaries that you’ve explicitly defined as vital to you, your team or organization.

3.) Communicate the Context

Sometimes you and your leadership team find themselves in a situation where demonstrated behaviour, or specific action, appears to run counter to stated commitments. In these circumstances, if the behaviour or action is necessary for valid reasons, it’s critical to explain your rationale and the ways that alignment will eventually be realized. Communicate this information to constituents and stakeholders who may be impacted by your actions.

4.) Emphasize Humble Learnings

If you’ve acted in haste, short-sightedness or error, own up – recognize your mistake, apologize and work to remedy the impact. Focus on the learnings inherent in the behaviour or action that wasn’t congruent with your commitments. Openly share those key learnings with constituents and stakeholders, and pledge to avoid anything similar in the future.

5.) Take Action to Avoid Repetition

Identify specific ways to ensure that something similar doesn’t occur in the future. You and your team need to ask what instigated and drove the misaligned action or behaviour. Given the same context, determine how you and your leadership team will respond differently next time around. Identify what’s going to be put into place to flag comparable situations, even if they don’t necessarily appear to be identical.

As a leader, ensuring your actions match stated commitments is crucial to building trust and inspiring the best in others. Be wise in your commitments, anticipate rub points, communicate context, emphasize humble learnings and take action to avoid repetition.

If you want to get insightful in-depth feedback regarding your leadership alignment with stated aspirations, values and behaviours, contact me at scott@scottborland.ca or 250-882-8830 for a chat.

About The Author

Scott Borland, Founder & President of CYGNUS Management Consultants Inc, , is a recognized expert in helping executives host strategic conversations and obtain high impact feedback. He brings insightful perspective and proven strategies to strengthen the alignment between strategy and leadership behaviour. Scott has presented frequently at regional/national conferences and is a regular contributor to online journals/blogs. Follow Scott on Twitter or add him as a connection on LinkedIn.


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