My wife and I were in the mall doing some Christmas shopping and we heard it again. A child was fingering some merchandise and the child’s mother raised her voice. “You heard what I said before! I’m not going to tell you again.”
Later, over coffee, my wife said, “I am growing to hate that phrase.”
“Oh?” I said, sipping my latte. “What phrase is that?”
“I’m not going to tell you again.” At first I didn’t get it, but then I re-learned a leadership lesson as my wife explained a basic parenting principle. “When a parent says they’re not going to tell the child again, you immediately know that the parent has already told the child at least once.”
“I see the logic in that,” I ventured.
“It stands to reason. She’s already told her at least once before, and now she’s telling her again. What do you think happened the last time she told her?”
“Uh …” I realized I was getting in over my head. My wife was the tested professional here; the successful mother of four and the matriarch to our 11 grandchildren. “I’m guessing nothing happened.”
“Exactly!” she said emphatically. “Nothing happened. And, after that little episode we witnessed, what did you see happen?”
“Nothing?” I asked.
“Right again. Nothing! So now, what do we know about this mother’s follow-through?”
I knew I was on shaky ground. “Probably that she doesn’t. Follow through, I mean.”
“We also know something about what the child can expect when the mom says she will do something.” She looked at me expectantly, like the answer was obvious.
“That she probably won’t do it?” I asked weakly.
“Of course. She just taught the child that, one, when she says something, she doesn’t mean it. And, two, the child can expect no consequences if she does something the mother told her not to do.” She leaned back in her chair triumphantly, toasting me with her mug. My wife had reminded me of some valuable leadership training as we sat sipping our coffee.
When any of us say we’re going to do something, and then don’t follow through and do it, we’re not only lying about what we intend, we’re training others to expect more of the same.
How often do we make that mistake as leaders? We say we’re going to do something, either as a threat, or even as a routine commitment. And then we fail to follow through. We’ve not only compromised our integrity, but have shown others they shouldn’t expect our word to matter. We’re training our followers to ignore us. That’s a place no leader should want to go.
As leaders, we must be careful not to commit to something, even in passing, if we might not be able to deliver. And if we do say we’ll do something, well, we’d better do it! Integrity in leadership starts with our words; we need to say what we mean, and mean what we say.