Leadership Risk: Over Promise, Under Deliver

[May 9, 2016]  One of the greatest risks a leader can make is to over promise what they can do.  Everyone has seen it time and again and everyone will experience overpromising leaders throughout their lifetimes.  And, as expected, leaders are drawn to people who desire something better.  The end result is, at best, disappointment or, at worse, something evil.

To help us illustrate this point, U.S. President Barack Obama had promised during his presidential campaign and in speeches after his election that America was entering a post-racial society where people would set aside their animosities and prejudices for the betterment of everyone.1  He was wrong and admitted as such during a recent speech on race at Howard University, a predominantly black college.2  But the story doesn’t end with his wishful promises.  His legacy will be that race relations in America are worse by just about every measure.

Failure was his overzealousness brought on by the mesmerizing victory he enjoyed against difficult obstacles.  He is certainly not the only leader who overpromised and under delivered in such circumstances.  It’s been a practice of politicians everywhere.  Rarely are their constituents affected by it and life goes on with a few complaints.  When a military leader or anyone in a critical profession overpromises, however, the results can be bad for everyone.

It is never the intent of a leader to disappoint but it happens because of the bad habit of trying to get ahead of the competition with words instead of deeds.  Inexperience explains part of the problem but a lack of character is truly the issue.  Leaders must be self-aware, mature, and resilient enough to resist the temptation of the moment.  Some have said humans are born with the trait although most psychologists will disagree.

The obvious solution is to never over promise.  While easy to say, it is hard to do.  Just ask any sales professional.  A common retort when they see a salesperson fail a client, is “promise little, deliver everything.”  Good work habits help.  Personal focus on mission and taking care of people is also important.  Patience and honesty (i.e., character) however are the real keys to not overpromising.

Tomorrow will bring another day and another important leader will over promise and under deliver; no one will be surprised because there’s rarely any accountability for being wrong.  Truly great leaders will not make that mistake.

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  1. http://www.latimes.com/opinion/opinion-la/la-oe-steele5-2008nov05-story.html
  2. https://www.yahoo.com/news/obama-tackles-race-university-address-175526266.html



Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.