November 2015

Fairness and Consistency

by Perry J. Martini, PhD
co-author Inspiring Leadership: Character and Ethics Matter


Without fairness and consistency, good leadership is impossible. Teams and organizations must know, without ambiguity or doubt, what their leader stands for — and won't stand for. They must be able to count on the boss. Steady leadership creates high morale and leads to outstanding team performance.

Most revealing is what the team does when the boss is away. A great team will be true to their guiding principles and philosophy, without hesitation, even in the leader's absence. It is the surest way of knowing that these principles have penetrated to the very marrow of the organization.

Most effective leaders understand the difference between being fair and treating people equally. A leader who is always fair and consistent establishes a culture where followers always know what to expect — and what's expected. The team will then take the initiative and make their own decisions based on the established philosophy, often without the boss even knowing that they've done so. On the other hand, weak and vacillating policy undermines morale. The team is rudderless. They don't know from one day to the next what will happen or what to expect from their leader. They become hesitant and unsure of themselves. The organization drifts aimlessly.

Consistency — A Critical Leadership Trait

Why is consistency critical to great leadership? Simply because it implies an absence of contradictions. People always know what to expect from a leader who is consistent. However, a leader who changes with the weather creates insecurity and uneasiness. When you eradicate contradictions in your moral standards, actions, and values, you will eliminate inconsistency.

When your leadership is consistent and has no contradictions, you have "integrity." An old expression for integrity is "solid gold." You are pure gold through and through with no imperfections, no base metals to taint your character. People with integrity are always true to their beliefs. As Polonius said to his son, Laertes, in Shakespeare's Hamlet, "This above all else, to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man."

Most often our inconsistencies are exposed when our actions contradict what we say. We might claim to be law abiding, but then cheat on our income taxes. Perhaps we feel that cash payments or tips don't have to be reported as income, only because we can get away with it. After all, who would know? But integrity, much like ethics, is "what you do when no one is watching." It is safe to say that we've all failed that test in our lives at one time or another. But by being mindful of our internal contradictions — our failures of integrity — we can begin the improvement process. Much like the smelting of gold, it takes exposure to the white-hot forge of honest self-appraisal to remove these impurities in our own character.

Fairness Recognizes the Worth of Each Individual

We undermine fairness and consistency when we blindly apply the rules without considering individuals or circumstances. A good example of this would be initiatives such as mandatory sentencing. Once you remove the discretion of the judge, you have a cookbook legal system. The judge is forced to look up the crime, and then apply the mandatory sentence. He is not allowed to take anything else into account when administering punishment.

No two people are the same, no two sets of circumstances are the same, and no two offenses are the same. If they were, you wouldn't need judges, only bureaucrats. Ideally, we make men and women judges because of their wisdom. If we take away their discretion in applying the law, we've taken away their most important tool and made them powerless.

This idea applies to business leaders, athletic coaches, and parents as well. For example, a good coach knows that some players need a good swift kick in the butt to get their attention, but others would be devastated and lose confidence with such methods. Everyone must be intrinsically motivated in a unique way, and the best leaders know which one to use. Wise parents are also aware that each of their children must be nurtured in a different way. That doesn't mean the parents play favorites — the rules of the family apply equally to all — just that the approach to each child is different. Employing a "one size fits all" method is a common failure of leadership.

People want to be treated as unique individuals and to know that their leader cares for each of them in a personal way. No one wants to be lumped into a single, faceless category where individuality is lost. While it may seem to be a contradiction — we first think that everyone should be treated exactly the same way — fairness is best served when these unique, one-on-one relationships are valued and preserved.

What All Great Coaches Know

The late John Wooden, arguably the greatest college basketball coach in history, would not allow star treatment on any of the teams he coached. Once Bill Walton, his all-American center, came to him objecting to the coach's rule on facial hair. Walton told Coach Wooden that he didn't think he should have to shave his beard because it didn't affect his play, and that it was a silly rule anyway. Coach Wooden didn't overreact. He calmly told his star that he admired a man of principle, a man who felt so strongly about his beliefs that he would give up his scholarship at UCLA rather than shave. Coach Wooden then wished Bill every success on his next college team. That stopped the star center in his tracks. At the next practice, he was clean-shaven.

Vince Lombardi, the storied coach for the Green Bay Packers, had a similar reputation for fairness and consistency. As many of his stars fondly remembered, "He rode us all equally hard." In his pursuit of excellence, Coach Lombardi was totally colorblind. His system was based on merit alone. Only through hard work and effort did you become a starter for the Green Bay Packers. Every one of his players knew it, and loved him for it. Like John Wooden, Vince Lombardi's greatness can be measured by the vast number of players who continued to be influenced by him long after their careers were over — and even after the great coach's death. All of them would say that Coach Lombardi made them the men they are today.

The Abuse of Power

Perhaps there is no greater affront to fairness and consistency than the abuse of power. When people in high places or in positions of leadership get special treatment or fail to abide by the rules, it is an egregious betrayal of the public trust. Not surprisingly, it stirs up anger and animosity.

When Marie Antoinette said, "Let them eat cake!" in reply to, "Your majesty, they have no bread," it helped to ignite the French Revolution. Her aloof sense of privilege infuriated the common people. They soon exacted their revenge at the guillotine.

During our own Civil War, rich men could buy their way out of the draft. However, the poor were not able to escape conscription and the carnage of the war. In 1863, this gross inequity spawned the worst riots New York City had ever seen.

As was demonstrated with the Enron scandal, "white collar crime" can cost billions and is far more serious than petty theft. Yet, the chances of a rich person doing serious jail time are very slim because he or she can afford to hire an army of the best lawyers to defend him. Those expensive lawyers in their hand-tailored suits will drag out the legal proceedings, often for years. Even if the millionaire offender is finally incarcerated, it is likely to be in a "minimum-security prison." Where is the fairness in that! Their theft of billions often wipes out the life savings of thousands of ordinary workers. Their punishment should fit the crime, but it seldom does. It is this type of inconsistency that undermines the justice system.

Positions of authority carry with them increased responsibility. For example, judges, legislators, and law enforcement officers must hold themselves equally accountable to the laws that govern us all. When they don't, it undermines any sense of fairness in the system. Leaders must always be on guard against the temptations of power. As Lord Acton said so many centuries ago, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Concluding Thoughts

So what are the secrets of good leadership when it comes to fairness and consistency? Perhaps the first is: Abide by the rules yourself. There can be no favoritism on the team, especially for the boss. Sure, you may be eligible for head of the line privileges, but that doesn't mean you exercise that option.

Show you are willing to bear the burdens of the team's efforts, not just the fruits. There should be no job beneath your dignity, no danger that you won't share. During World War I, the American general, "Black Jack" Pershing, was asked by a French general, "Why do your lieutenants lead the charge over the top from the trenches?" Pershing replied, "Because you can't push a string!"

Don't be afraid of showing fallibility. No one expects you to be perfect. In fact, they need to see your human side. Try to remedy inadvertent errors when you make them, but never attempt to cover them up.

Perry J. Martini, Ph.D., is a 1971 graduate of the United States Naval Academy and later earned three Masters Degrees in Business, Education, and International Affairs. He holds a Doctoral Degree in Education with Distinction from The George Washington University. Perry was a Naval Aviator and served for twenty-seven years in multiple leadership positions. He is currently the Director of Executive Leadership Programs at Academy Leadership, and an accomplished author and speaker.