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Be careful what you wish for

One sign of a good leader is how she or he responds when the unexpected happens, when an unintended consequence occurs.

4 min read


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One sign of a good leader is how she or he responds when the unexpected happens, when an unintended consequence occurs.

Do you stick with the initial plans and continue self-righteously down the initial path, or do you step back, evaluate the situation based on the new information and do what’s best for the organization, no matter what some stakeholders may prefer?

A former client faced just such a situation.

My former client recently explained how he had to lead his university through some unintended consequences. During his tenure as provost at a major university, a decision was made to fund an expansion for the athletic department while times were a little leaner on the academic side. The faculty was up in arms about the disparity in focus between athletics and academics. They protested about such an expenditure for athletics while there was an acute shortage of classroom space they had to wrestle with.

The provost leads the academic side of the university and, being a good leader, he responded to the faculty’s request by engaging in a thorough study of classroom capacity and utilization. He wanted to get the facts to be able to engage in the planning that needed to be done to respond to what sounded like a very legitimate faculty concern. He engaged an independent group to do the analysis.

But like I stated in the headline, you’ve got to be careful what you wish for. The results of the study indicated that, based on student population and the number of classes being offered, there was in fact an excess of classroom space on campus. How could this set of facts reconcile itself with the deeply held perception of the faculty?

Well, the devil’s in the details. It turned out that the vast majority of classes were being held between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

That meant 85% of classes were being scheduled in only 50% of the time that classrooms were available.

My client was faced with incontrovertible and, ultimately, unpleasant facts. The students and faculty both liked the midday hours for obvious reasons. However, the best solution was not to build more classrooms. Instead, the solution was to revamp class scheduling.

This, of course, made nobody happy, except for the capital committee who did not have to figure out how to finance another building.

My client waded in bravely against the tide of dissent, but the facts were the facts and everyone respected his process and his conclusions, even if they didn’t like the outcome. People’s concerns were heard, but they ultimately adapted to the hardship of having class as early as 8 a.m. or as late as 4 p.m.

In a time when situations can unexpectedly change, when confronting a thorny issue as a leader, ask yourself:

  • Am I willing to wade in to discover the facts of an issue thoroughly to be able to clarify the problem or issue?
  • Am I willing to provide the feedback to those involved in an honest, constructive manner so we can all move towards resolution?
  • Will I approach resolving any issue with the facts as the primary guide to a solution and with a firm belief that “none of us are as smart as all of us,” rather than seeing my solution be the “winner”?


Willy Steiner’s Executive Coaching Concepts is an executive coaching services firm dedicated to assisting senior executives in taking their individual and organizational performance “to the next level.” His new book, “Discover the Joy of Leadership, is available Feb. 6.”

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