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One of the Most Important Rules for Leaders

A college dean recently told me she had a mess on her hands. She had invited three graduate students to serve with her in student affairs, but found they weren’t cooperating with the policies. They were coming in late; they were not following a basic dress code, they were on their phones too much during their work hours and their language was not aligning with her standards of professional etiquette.

As she complained about how this problem evolved, I remembered a rule of thumb that every leader should follow—and that she had unfortunately neglected:

Begin as you intend to go on.

This statement applies to anyone, but especially to leaders. Its application is simple but profound: start the way you hope to end up. We should always clearly communicate and demonstrate expectations from the start, if we have any hope to maintain a standard later on when the grind sets in. If we begin well and clarify the norms in a firm manner and with unmistakable terms—it’s easier to lighten up later, if you choose to do so.

To put it another way: it is better to move from HARD to EASY than it is to move from EASY to HARD. If we start with hard conversations right from the beginning, trouble is less likely to surface later on.

My Past Failure


Years ago, I led a team of interns, and one of them became challenging to lead. Gary was a free spirit and had his own unique style for everything. I began noticing that Gary used inappropriate language and wore shorts and flip flops to work, which at the time, were simply not appropriate for our office. I didn’t say anything at first, hoping that Gary would simply see the example everyone else had set, including the other interns. But, alas, those examples did not affect him. When I eventually met with him to correct him, he was offended because he felt like it was a personal attack. It took him months to get over his anger. Looking back, I believe if I’d been clear and firm from the beginning, the outcome would have been different. Gary still would have disliked the policy, but it would have given both of us clarity on the issue from the start, and it would not have felt like a personal vendetta on my part.

The fact is, we usually avoid difficult conversations; we put them off until we are forced to have them. It’s human nature. But if we know there can be a potential challenge with a team member in the future, we’re more likely to succeed if we have that hard conversation in the beginning—before anything gets personal or seems like you’re reacting—than it is to wait, hoping it never pops up. Putting difficult realities off is only kicking the can down the road and it actually makes things worse.

This is especially true if you tend to believe the best about others. That’s been my test as a leader. I always see the positive side in people, and can be prone to be naïve and put off hard conversations. I’ve learned this principle the hard way.

So what do we do?

Establishing Norms and Expectations

People enter any new experience with expectations. In many ways, leadership is about managing people’s expectations. The longer we operate without guardrails, the more people feel free to come up with their own reality and expectations. And most of us don’t see the big picture; we tend to see “our” picture. Consider these three propositions I have written about in the past:

1. Success in relationships is about managing expectations.
2. Conflict arises when there is a gap between expectations and reality.
3. The conflict increases as the gap widens.

People—especially kids—need lots of feedback. They need trial and error, negative pushback and even criticism to help them see different angles and improve their conduct. That’s why effective leaders, coaches and educators pursue the following:

  • Establish Your Norms From the Start – What does success look like?
  • Clarify Your Expectations Up Front – What do we all expect of each other?
  • Host Hard Conversations First – What clarifications will ease tensions later?

Theodore Isaac Rubin said, “Happiness doesn’t come from doing easy work, but from the afterglow of satisfaction that comes after the achievement of a difficult task that demanded our best.”


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5 Comments

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One of the Most Important Rules for Leaders