How Great Leaders Never Break Promises


By Jas Singh

On average, I meet around six new people a day. And as you can probably expect with candidates who meet a headhunter, most of them are actively looking for a job.

Often these meetings give me unique and interesting insight into what is actually  happening inside companies. Not just what is released on Bloomberg. What new products are in the pipeline? What new markets will they going be after? Is the company looking to be acquired and the management team looking to cash in?

But perhaps the most interesting revelations of all is what candidates really think about management. In the majority of cases, when candidates are genuinely disengaged and even upset, it is usually because they feel let down by their management.

The fastest way for leaders to lose the respect of their followers is to break a promise. It’s a sure fire way to lose credibility.

What is a promise?

I just checked Oxford English Dictionary and think it gives a great description. According to OED to make a promise is to “assure someone that one will definitely do something or that something will happen.”

Here are some ways how great leaders never break their promises.

They only make promises very rarely

In the whirlwind of every day activity, often we need to show others that we can be trusted. That we really mean business. So that we can gain their co-operation and full support to make things happen.

So we make promises to show them how serious we are.

The problem is, we usually only make promises based on the information we currently have in front of us. Business is constant change and there will always be unexpected circumstances that prevent planned events and actions from happening. In my experience most people make promises with the full intention of following them through. What usually prevents them though is not that they’re cunning – but more the surprises and unexpected events. Often causing them to back-track on their word and result in pain all round.

Great leaders know this. They realise that even with the most caring and empathetic approach, sometimes things will happen that just prevent us from delivering. How can I guarantee the pay rise if we lose our biggest client? How will I be able to promote her if we suddenly have to cut staff? As a result they only make promises very rarely – when they know they will deliver.

As my father once told me, and I now tell my children, never make promises unless you know 100% you will be able to keep them.

Sure, make them assurances. Tell others what is likely to happen. Even promise them you are going to make this a priority and do your very best.

But a promise has to be a 101% guarantee.

They only promise things they can directly authorise

Business is often misleading. Everyone thinks they have the power to make things happen, but the truth is they usually need someone else’s permission. In my experience, ultimately most organisations are usually run by 5 – 10 people max (often a lot less) who can genuinely authorise decisions independently.

As any B2B sales person will tell you – the biggest challenge is not demonstrating value to the end user who will be using the product or even convincing them to buy. No, the biggest challenge is usually trying to convince the rest of the business – whether it is IT, finance or regional management. Often selling the proposition internally is hardest.

Great leaders understand this. They realise that many times, they need a final approval from someone else. In ten years as a hiring specialist, perhaps the most frustrating time for any hiring manager is when eight weeks of interviewing and screening becomes wasted at the last minute. Vacancy cancelled. Hiring Freeze. The impression with candidates who have often invested hours of their precious time is understandably negative.

Great leaders make promises they can authorise.

If they need others approval, they make it explicit in advance.

They keep records

One of our biggest clients this year is a Wall Street broker. And perhaps Wall Street tradtionally is one of the worst examples of broker promises, even outright lying.

Yet this company is different. Their staff retention is close to 99% annually and their compliance record 100% – not one incident of a fine or investigation for over 25 years.

One of the biggest reasons for this is how the company documents monthly strategy meetings and annual performance reviews. Led by the CEO, everyone emails an agenda in advance of the meetings – but perhaps more surprisingly – also afterwards the meeting to summarize what had been agreed.

Often the CEO feels these “agreed” plans of action are inaccurate. So they amend until both parties are happy. Each of the executives also does this monthly with their own monthly team meetings. All agreements and obligations are recorded.

The best way to make and keep a promise, is to do it together. Promises usually involve contributions from both sides, and so by engaging in productive communication and managing expectations everyone knows where they stand.

And by recording it, it shows even more confidence in your ability to deliver.

Great leaders keep records.


Great leaders need to generate great trust.

Trust that needs to be earned – often by keeping promises towards others.

Hiring managers can gain much from hiring those people who keep their word. Who command respect and who inspire others.

Have you ever been let down by a failed promise?

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