A reliable leader is one who does what they say they’ll do. Reliability is big in the workplace, because it helps to build trust. You know what you’re going to get from that boss, that colleague or that reliable team member.
But being a reliable leader is not as easy as it sounds.
“Just do what you say you’re going to do” people might say.
Well, if it was that easy to be reliable, everyone would do it and I wouldn’t be writing this article.
Being Reliable Comes More Easily to Some Than Others
For some people, being reliable comes naturally.
Luckily for me, I’m one of those people! I’m naturally motivated to do what I say I’m going to do.
I love routines and habits, and I don’t like letting people down. I’m rarely late to an appointment. I’ve been writing articles like this every single week since 2015.
While this consistency is a good thing, it also has a downside.
Sometimes, I can get stuck trying to be too prepared, I’m not very spontaneous and I might feel uncomfortable when things don’t go to plan.
Recently a client emailed me to ask about some documents I was meant to send them a few weeks ago. I’d become very busy and it had slipped my mind.
That hurt. The client wasn’t even really that bothered, but I was.
But that’s enough about me. The point is, being reliable is different for everyone, because people are motivated differently.
Some people are more spontaneous and like to tackle many things at once. Others are focused on supporting people, sometimes at the expense of other priorities.
We can’t expect to become a reliable leader by changing the way we are naturally motivated. Instead, we can introduce practices to help us be more reliable. These will help us to show up in a more consistent way.
And that’s the point of this article.
How to Be a More Reliable Leader
We’re not all created equal. You can’t just tell everyone to be more reliable. We aren’t all wired the same way.
Here are some ideas to try to help you become a more reliable leader, which will hopefully help you to build trust.
It won’t be easy, however. Sometimes to be more reliable, you’ve got to go through some discomfort. More on that later.
1. Be a Reliable Leader By Prioritising
Prioritising is a very useful thing to practice. A reliable leader will prioritise the work of the team, and their own work.
When you prioritise you are more likely to be a reliable leader, because you focus your efforts on the things that people rely on you for.
I always like to start the day with three priorities, and I say to myself:
“If I get these things done today, it has been a productive day.”
Sometimes I’ll get them all done, and other times I’ll get more done. Occasionally, things will go wrong and I’ll fail to get everything done. But that’s OK, because it doesn’t happen too often.
I like to reflect on the conversation between Alice and the Cheshire Cat in Alice and Wonderland:
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where—” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
This is an extremely important concept, even if it’s from a work of fiction!
The point is, if you never set a direction, you never know where you’ll end up. Prioritising is your way to set a direction, so you have a better chance of getting somewhere you want to go.
Without prioritising, who knows where you’ll end up? Being a reliable leader means giving people some certainty about where you’re going.
What Are Your Big Rocks?
It’s an old concept now, but I still like the idea that in our day, we have big rocks, little rocks and sand. And we’re trying to fit them all into one glass jar.
Your top priorities are your big rocks. You should put them in the jar first.
Then you put in your little rocks, which are of lower priority than the big rocks.
Finally, we pour in the sand, which fills in all the gaps. Sand is the trivia, the very small items that we should be focusing on last, or not at all.
If you do it this way, the big rocks take up the most space, then the little rocks, and the sand fills in all the remaining gaps. This ensures that in your day (the glass jar), your top priorities are complete.
What often happens instead is that we consume ourselves with trivia. The random emails, the social media posts, the news articles, the social conversations and the meetings that don’t matter.
These fill up our jar, until there is no room for the big rocks. But if the big rocks were in the jar first, the sand would slide around them.
So, what are your big rocks? Allocate time for them. Schedule them. Focus on them.
Be aware of your little rocks, because they can be useful to complete too. Raise awareness of the “sand” in your team. This is the trivia and will fill in your day if you aren’t careful.
OK, Prioritising Sounds Simple. So Why Don’t People Do It?
Many leaders say they need to prioritise, but when push comes to shove, they keep *everything* on their list, instead of cutting it to the most important items.
I deliver time management training, and one of the common things people want from these courses are time management tools.
That’s cool. There are lots of time management and prioritisation tools that can be useful.
But a tool is only useful when you apply it.
A tool makes people feel like they have something. Only those who can apply it will benefit.
There are no benefits from having a fancy prioritisation model when your boss says “No, I need all of it done, not just those three”.
What do you do then?
You need to be able to stick to your guns.
To be able to push back, to say “No”. You may need to have a difficult conversation, instead of taking the path of least resistance, which is often to say “Yes” to everything.
Pushing back is not so easy, so I’ll leave some resources to help you do that right here:
- Article: Why Leaders Must Push Back and Say “No”
- Article: 5 Ways to Say No Without Getting Fired
- Course: Time Management For Leaders Online Course
- eBook: The Difficult Conversations eBook.
2. Be a More Reliable Leader By Communicating
Prioritisation is one part of the solution to being more reliable. Communicating is the next part which will help you to make sure you can actually stick to your priorities.
A reliable leader communicates clearly to set expectations about what they will be delivering, and when.
You’ll sometimes need to push back, but often if we communicate clearly early on, we can avoid an uncomfortable conversation later.
So what should you be communicating? Start with these things:
- Priorities. Start by letting people know what your priorities are. This includes your team, your boss, your colleagues and any other stakeholder who needs to know. If people have a problem with your priorities, this can start a negotiation about where your efforts should be directed.
- Deadlines. It’s important to say what you’ll deliver and when. Without this, people can make up their own mind about when you need to deliver something.
- Issues. Things can go wrong, even for the most reliable leaders. If you have an issue that means you can’t deliver, you need to communicate it as soon as possible. You’re still being reliable, because people will know you’ll tell them if something goes wrong.
Communication is an enabler of reliability, because people can’t consider you as being reliable if nobody knows what you’re doing.
Help them understand where you’re going, so they’ll be able to rely on you getting there.
Learn More: 5 Simple Steps to Communicate Effectively.
3. Be a More Reliable Leader By Being Realistic
Another useful quality I’ve seen in reliable leaders is that they tend to be realistic about what they can achieve.
When they don’t believe they can reasonably achieve a target, they’ll likely say so, instead of keeping their head down and struggling.
You can only be realistic when you understand your work environment and the capacity of your team. Look for factors such as:
- Past performance: How have you and your team performed in the past? What capacity were you able to deliver in a given timeframe? How much work was too much, or too little?
- Organisational constraints: Sometimes a plan looks good until you realise that it takes 6 months for your company to buy something, or 4 months to process some sort of funding application. Make sure you know your constraints, because they’ll be an input into the time you’ll take to deliver.
It’s easy to be optimistic and assume you can do everything.
I’ve worked in environments like this, where everyone keeps their head down and pretends they can achieve everything, even though quietly, they know the targets they’ve been set are not achievable.
Being realistic doesn’t mean you can’t stretch yourself. The key is to understand what is a stretch for you and your team, and what is way out of reach.
You might try staging your approach, to deliver in phases instead of all at once. This can help you to deliver part of the outcome, even if you can’t quite commit to the whole thing.
Then, when you reach the end of each stage, you can reassess just how realistic your priorities are.
Should You Underpromise and Overdeliver?
One approach that many people like to advocate is underpromising, so they can overdeliver.
In other words, you promise you’ll deliver 50, when actually you know you can do 100 pretty easily. This means that if something does go wrong, you can still hit your target.
It’s not a terrible idea, because it improves your chances of success. The problem can be when you try this too often. Before long, people see that you are “gaming” the system by setting easy targets.
This can eventually build you a reputation of wanting an easy ride. Before long, someone might decide to set the ambitious targets for you!
Unfortunately, There’s No Easy Way Out
The only way you can be a reliable leader is to do what you say you will.
You can only do that if you set realistic priorities, communicate effectively and have the skills and courage to push back when you need to.
This isn’t easy in a complex work environment, with a boss who is pushing you hard.
However, it’s worth the effort, because people tend to trust a reliable leader. You’ll also likely receive more autonomy because people will leave you alone to get on with it.
After all, they know a reliable leader like you is good for it.
What steps can you take to be a more reliable leader? Let me and all the thoughtful leaders know in the comments below!