No Fine Print in Leadership


Stuck at the lights next to this car insurance billboard I had occasion to read the fine print. The fine print, which is illegible in the photo, explained:

  • That the actor in the photo is not the identified customer
  • That the saving may not be replicated in another customer situation
  • That standard underwriting terms and conditions apply i.e. the insurance may not be available to a customer
  • That the car insurance is not provided by Coles but by Wesfarmers Insurance, the underwriter
  • That a customer should read the product disclosure statement to determine whether the insurance is right for them.

Lawyers will have demanded these disclaimers to make the messages safe and to rule out risk. No marketer ever wanted a disclaimer on an ad. As a result of this legally required list of disclaimers the proposition of the billboard is solidly undermined, if anyone ever reads them. No wonder the print is hard to read from a distance.

Don’t Rely on Fine Print in Leadership

Noble intentions in leadership are often undermined by the safety of fine print. Some leaders communicate with hidden disclaimers:

  • I want this team to be open and honest* (*until there is uncomfortable conflict, particularly with me)
  • I am not hierarchical* (*until it involves my status)
  • My focus is success of the team* (*until I’m told otherwise)
  • We need to be more innovative* (*as long as it is guaranteed to succeed)
  • We need to engage all our stakeholders* (*until I have a view)
  • We need to move faster and be more agile* (*until it is my decision)

Like the ad above, these disclaimers undermine if not subvert the message of the leader. Many of these leaders genuinely mean these statements when they are made. Their intentions and desire to change are noble. For others, these are just the kinds of statements that leaders make. They are leadership platitudes.

However change takes more than the safety of good intentions or platitudes. Change needs people to stick out the hard times. Leaders who opt for disclaimers take the safe route.  Often, they just failed to think their comments through and were surprised by the hard decisions that they entail.  By failing to reconcile their statements with likely eventualities or their own personal reactions when particular situations arise, they end up escaping through the silent disclaimer when things get tough.

Leaders need to understand that their public statements are seen by their teams as commitments. There is no division of ‘core and non-core’ promises. These are not indications of present intent subject to disclaimers. They are commitments to other people who need to rely on them to manage their uncertainty, trust & support to go through change. With this focus, it pays to think through the commitments and to accept that delivering against those commitments made will be hard and involve challenges.

If you are going to say it, be prepared to back it up. Leadership is hard work and means taking risk. Leave the safety of disclaimers to the lawyers.

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