Despite 70 years of research into leadership modelling, a multibillion-dollar leadership industry and the collective efforts of HR and other corporate professionals, fostering good leadership is at times an inconsistent and elusive pursuit. But there is one simple method leaders can use to bring them more into alignment with their leadership goals. This is the “firm but fair” approach, a dictum that strikes a balance between the authoritarian leadership styles of the past and the compassion and empathy expected of leaders in the present.
What do great leaders have in common? A Gallup poll found that exceptional leaders possess the following traits:
- They foster trust and open communication by offering complete transparency.
- They’re driven by results, not politics.
- They motivate and engage because they have a compelling mission and vision.
- They nurture a culture of accountability.
- They have the assertiveness required to drive outcomes and the grit needed to prevail in adverse circumstances.
This is a dauntingly tall order and goes some way in explaining why good leaders are still so rare, but excellence in leadership is within grasp if potential leaders are willing to take time to focus on building character rather than just a following. Businesses naturally want to get the best out of employees, and effective leadership is integral to reaping the benefits of increased productivity, loyalty and better workplace morale. So what is “firm but fair” and how do leaders apply it to achieve great outcomes?
Firm but fair means leading with clear boundaries and expectations, but also a willingness to listen and enact change. Sound simple enough? It’s the second part that many of us seem to struggle with. Listening and adapting shouldn’t be equated to giving up one’s power and authority; confident leaders that listen well are rewarded with a more positive and fruitful relationship with their employees.
Important aspects of firm but fair leadership include assertiveness, openness (within reason due to confidentiality) and transparency, plus a willingness to invest in your staff. How these qualities play out in the workplace can depend on the individual you are managing – one caveat to keep in mind is that different generations of employees can have different expectations. For example, Baby Boomers tend to be more comfortable with hierarchical relationships and taking direction from their employers while millennials prefer a more personal approach and often need clearer and stronger boundaries to help them stay on track.
Firm, authoritative leadership is based on assertiveness
First, let’s go through the different types of leadership. On one hand, you have what is known as “authoritarian leadership”, a style that operates on employee compliance through force. This may entail closely monitoring employee activity and using a reward and punishment system to drive performance. On the opposite of the spectrum lies “laissez-faire” leadership, which is characterised by a hands-off approach where everyone gets a say. Studies show this leadership model has the lowest productivity rate of them all.
The sensible middle ground, then, is authoritative leadership. Such leaders are the embodiment of the “firm but fair” mentality. They are never shy to step in and take the reins when needed but are open to employee feedback when the occasion calls for it. Authoritative leaders set clear expectations and strong boundaries in a sensitive and respectful way.
In practical terms this means:
Having standards in terms of what kind of behaviours you accept in the workplace.
Making hard decisions with conviction – communicating with firm and direct language.
Setting strong boundaries – being comfortable with those difficult, but necessary conversations.
Learning to say no.
Calling out problematic behaviours to resolve conflict as soon as it crops up.
Consistency is essential to establishing fairness
According to an international study conducted by research firm CPP Global in 2008, 85 per cent of individuals and leaders said they have experienced some form of conflict at work, with 29 per cent of respondents stating that the level of conflict they experienced occurred every day. Proper leadership can help manage these inevitable clashes but poor leadership frequently makes matters worse.
Consistent behaviour and treating everyone the same particularly helps when leading a hostile or resistant team. In the end, you have to accept and be comfortable with pushback. When you cultivate a respectful working environment that prizes transparency and openness, you are more likely to avoid resentment from the people you lead. Emotional intelligence training is a great idea for leaders who want to learn better ways to manage people, especially in conflict.
Setting an example by being consistent in your behaviour and expectations shows your team what they can anticipate from you, and will go a long way towards establishing trust as well as reducing the likelihood of a blow-up at work. The aim is to be relatable but not vulnerable – relatable is still friendly and approachable but doesn’t cross into oversharing. The focus should be on gaining respect instead of trying to be everyone’s friend.
Invest in your people
Developing a culture of employee wellbeing, inclusiveness and open communication are other important qualities of good leaders in 2022. Employees deserve ongoing feedback and need to know where they stand in terms of career development and progression. The exodus of workers in the Great Resignation has been a wake-up call for employers to double down on their efforts at establishing great leadership and showcase the values they stand for.
People have shown they are less willing to tolerate bad leadership and are more willing to walk away from leaders that don’t invest in them or inspire them. It is possible to overhaul your policies and procedures while retaining high-quality performance. By being firm and fair, leaders can secure agreeable outcomes for their teams, organisation and themselves.
Amanda Rose is a leadership expert and founder of Small Business Women Australia and Western Sydney Women. She is a consultant and mentor for small business women and career women as well as a speaker on conflict resolution, negotiation, confidence, culture and resilience.