Are you an Unpredictable Leader?

Have you ever slogged your guts out on a piece of work making sure that every fact and figure has been checked? Have you ever written a report where you’ve really put the time and effort in to make sure the research and the conclusions ‘stack-up’ to some tough scrutiny?

And then when you’ve shared it with your boss, they take a cursory glance or worse still don’t even read it or challenge your assumptions, logic or numbers?

It’s disappointing. Like going through the training for a marathon, only to be told you’ve lost your place!

The flipside of this situation is when you do a piece of work that is perhaps reliant on other people’s inputs. You know the people and trust their judgement but because of time pressure, you haven’t really had time to dig into the detail. Then when presenting it to your boss, they really scrutinise and challenge you. They ask you questions which you can’t answer exposing your lack of knowledge of the detail.

This scenario is far worse than the first one and I would always recommend that you truly understand the detail of anything that you’re expected to present. However, when you are under pressure and forced to prioritise, I can understand why the second scenario happens.

These scenarios highlight the problem of the unpredictable leader.

It’s a problem because if someone’s behaviour is predictable, you can alter your behaviour to make sure you meet their expectations. If they’re unpredictable, it becomes very difficult to deliver work that you know they will understand and appreciate.

For example. If you are working for someone who has an eye for detail and data, whenever you are sharing something with them, you need to make sure it has plenty of facts and figures to back it up. Other people are more people focussed which means you will need to think of the impact your proposals will have on the team and the culture of the organisation.

I have written about the OODA loop before making it clear that one of the best ways in which you can overcome an adversary is by being unpredictable. By not following patterns, you can disrupt their mental models and cause them to freeze. This is an extremely effective way of overcoming an adversary.

But if you’re working with people as part of a team, you want to be predictable. You want to make it easy for them to meet your expectations because unpredictability is a nightmare for people trying to manage upwards.

Is the boss going to be in a good mood? Are they going to provide maximum challenge or are they going to be relaxed and agree with what you propose?

Every interaction between the boss and the employee is an opportunity to learn about each other.

When I worked at Urenco, it became very clear that the MD, Simon Bowen, wasn’t there to solve your problems. When you think about it, it makes sense. They’re YOUR problems, which should someone else solve them for you? But how often do problems get escalated in your organisation?

Simon’s expectation was that you shared the problem and your proposed solution(s) seeking guidance and advice if appropriate. It wasn’t his job to work out the answer because otherwise, he’d become the ‘answers guy’ with decision-making held at his level.

You don’t want to create a culture where employees escalate problems without proposed solutions – and you definitely don’t want all the decisions held at a senior level.

So how do you become predictable?

The first thing you have to do is deepen the relationships you have with your people.

How can you motivate someone and improve their performance if you don’t know anything about them?

The simple answer is that you can’t.

When I was placed in command of a new troop of Marines in the Corps, the first thing I would do is interview each of them. I would ask them the following questions:

  • Where did you grow up?
  • Where do you spend your weekends?
  • What motivates you?
  • What do you want to specialise in?
  • What do you want out of your career in the Corps?

This helped me to understand what they wanted to do. If they didn’t know the answers, I could work towards helping them find out but at least I had a starting point from which to support and develop them as individuals. When I left the Corps, I was given some excellent advice which builds on this practice.


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If you are going to start leading a team – make it easier for them by giving them the ‘Roadmap to You’.

Prepare the following presentation and give it to everyone that reports to you – and maybe even their direct reports if you think it is appropriate.

Start with your background…

  • Where did you grow up?
  • Where did you go to school?
  • What does your family background look like?

Then move on to tell them about your career…

  • Where did you start – why?
  • Why did you move to various positions? What did you learn with each move?

Then tell them about you…

  • What are your strengths and what are your weaknesses?
  • What interests and excites you and what bores you?
  • What are your values?
  • What irritates you? E.g. if you hate it when people arrive late to meetings, tell them that at the start. Don’t wait till ‘they get it wrong’ and you have to correct them.

Then tell them what you are ‘working on from a personal perspective’.

What are you trying to do to improve yourself?

Ask them to hold you to account for a behaviour that you are trying to change.

What happens if you do something like this?

You will demonstrate tremendous humility – you are sharing with your team that you’re a ‘work in progress’ and that’s okay – because in reality everyone is. You don’t have all the answers and you’re not perfect so you are not expecting them to be.

You’re also making it clear from the outset that you know yourself. This type of consistency makes it easy for your people to ‘manage up’. It sets expectations from the start and makes it easy for them to perform under your leadership.

The next step is to take each person out for a coffee and ask them the same questions. Build a deeper relationship with the person by asking them about their personal history.

  • What is important to them?
  • What drives and motivates them?
  • What do they want out of life and how can you support that aspiration?

How would you feel if your Boss did that with you? Would this kind of thing engage you?

Maybe, maybe not – but at least you know they’ve made an effort to find out about you and how they can help you.

This process will help move your deepen your relationships beyond the simply transactional.

The second thing you have to do is develop the ability to remove emotion from the equation.

Do you purposefully act in a chosen and deliberate manner or are you simply reacting?

The two are very different. Reactions happen quickly. The most common are when mistakes are made, tempers get lost and voices get raised. These behaviours lead to a climate of fear and, at best, compliance. These behaviours undermine open, honest conversation and challenge. They cause those around you unnecessary stress. They lead to the best people leaving.

Acting deliberately is a choice. It involves being aware of your behaviour and the impact it is having on other people. It means choosing how to behave depending on those around you and the circumstances you face.

You cannot chose what happens to you but you can always choose how you react.

You are responsible for your behaviour, your reactions and the impact they have on other people.

Great leaders understand this and adjust accordingly. This is one of the key elements that makes them predictable, making it easier for their team members to ‘get inside their OODA loop’ and manage their expectations.



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