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Should leaders under promise or over promise

Monday 23 November 2009 at 2:06 pm

Should leaders under promise and over deliver or over promise and over deliver?  I believe they should do both.

A promise is nothing more than a commitment to do something or not do something.  As such, leaders may do one or more of the following.

1.  Under promise and Under deliver

2.  Under promise and Over deliver

3.  Over promise and Under deliver

4.  Over promise and Over deliver

I do not believe anyone wants a leader that under delivers so choices 1 and 3 are out.  That leaves 2 and 4. 

Under promise and over deliver - this could be someone who sets goals, objectives that people can expect will be achieved, and then they exceed them. 

Over promise and over deliver - this could be someone who sets goals, objectives that no one expects can be achieved, and then they achieve them.

Given these descriptions it would seem that Leader 4 would be the ideal choice.  What could be wrong with a leader that reaches for the stars?  Nothing really, except will followers follow if the promise is not realistic?  At first, I thought over promising was a bad idea and then I remembered Joe Namath, former Quarterback of the New York Jets. 

Namath better known as Broadway Joe led the Jets to victory in Superbowl III against the Baltimore Colts.  The Jets an 18-point underdog defeated the Colts after Namath guaranteed a Jet victory!  This was an over promise if there ever was one.  However, Namath and his Jets far exceeded expectations. 

While this may not be the best example of over promising and over delivering, because after all football is just a game.  However, you get the point.  We have other examples in business, government, etc., where leaders have over promised, and over delivered on matters more important than a Superbowl.     

Even so, is there a danger to over promising?  I think so if you do it without establishing a foundation.  For example, every NFL team starts the season with the goal of reaching the Superbowl.  However, only two teams will get there so few, if any promise it.  Instead, they under promise by taking one game at a time until the final goal is in sight.  

This suggests that over promising is the culmination of a series of under promises that were over delivered.  Executives should follow this example.  Focus on continuously delivering results that matter building a strong foundation until that last victory is not that impossible.

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