I received an email today asking my opinion on a quote. The writer asked what I thought about the quote “Leadership is disappointing people at a rate they can tolerate.” I know the quote they are referencing, and here is the response I answered with.
It’s interesting you ask about that quote. It’s by Ronald Heifetz. The quote is “Leadership is often a matter of failing people’s expectations at a rate they can stand.” I heard it from Dr. Scott Cormode, from Fuller Seminary. I agree with the quote, but I think there are some slight differences between it and what might be implied when we say “disappointing people”.
I believe the quote is speaking to the idea that leaders are called often to go first and navigate change for a group. They are often the first ones to say “We are here, and we need to go over there.” When you’re dealing with a group of people, some will be ready to go, some will be unsure, and often some will know that they don’t want to go at all. A leader’s job is to listen, encourage, help, and move. As a leader steps into that, they need to know that movement requires, by it’s very nature, change. Change is often the difficult piece at the center of the process.
So, as a leader calls for a move, a change, you know that people will react in different ways. It doesn’t matter which group you look at, you are likely to fail someone’s expectations, in each group, at the same time. Some of the folks who are more than ready to move may feel you are moving too slowly, or in the wrong direction. Some of the folks in the middle may feel that you are not properly caring for other people in the process. Many of the change resistant people are likely to feel undervalued, or not heard. All of them have an expectation on how this process needs to go, what time frame it should take, what steps need to be in a which order, etc. Any of them that you deviate from, will cause them to have a failure in their expectations.
Since it is typically unavoidable, a leader must be ready to embrace that, and navigate it well. If you try to lead and keep everyone equally happy, you will not move. If you run over people and ignore their feelings, they will not go with you (and for good reason). That is why the idea of failing expectations at a rate they can stand is important. You have to know the people you’re leading well enough to know how much change / failed expectations will be healthy for each person, and how much is too little or too much. It requires prayer, wisdom, discernment, and hard work to navigate it well, and humility and honesty when you don’t navigate it well.
I see the difference between this and “disappointing people” in that it would be easy to think of disappointing people as a leader planning from the start to intentionally frustrate people for some unspecified reason. A leader doesn’t need to engineer tension in a season of change, it will occur naturally. Failing someone’s expectations can elicit a variety of emotions, disappointment may be one of them, but there are many others as well.
Have you heard this quote before? What are your thoughts? Would you interpret it differently? I’d love to hear what you think about it.