Do You Steal From Tomorrow?

Servant leaders avoid the "budget shuffle" or, at least, be transparent about trade-offs you make. Otherwise, you risk the perception of stealing from tomorrow.

Business Stealing Budget from TomorrowThe Budget Shuffle Tactic

I bet that you’ve seen the budget shuffle before: supposed leaders in an organization steal from tomorrow to make today look good. Then, the offender claims huge success by highlighting all the benefits they delivered without explaining all the costs that will have to be covered down the road. For example, any time we receive value today and defer payment to later without making these trade-offs clear to all, we are stealing from tomorrow. As a servant leader you need to find a better solution.

GAAP Only Covers Half the Issue

While generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) have clear guidelines regarding hard costs in these matters, there are plenty of other opportunities for toxic leaders to commit this action. Examples where GAAP have no direct responsibility include overworking the staff with no commitment to reward or later offer comp time. Thievery may also occur when infrastructure is operated at higher tolerances than designed for long periods of time. This is equally as true of manufacturing and production systems as of information technology hardware and software.

Lest you think I am claiming perfection in this matter, know that what spurred my need to write this post was a recognition of my own offense in this matter. As leaders in our organization we are frequently challenged to deliver more with less. As resources become more stringent over time the temptation is great to “borrow” from tomorrow to make today look good. In fact, in some cases this is actually beneficial.

When Borrowing from Tomorrow is Necessary

If you plan a project in the next term’s budget, but a business need arises today, it may be better to execute that project early. Therefore, you may argue that burning the next term’s budget prematurely makes sense. Where thievery occurs is when the leader in this circumstance does not address all the expectations from the originally planned project as well. Many managers, in this circumstance, will boast about how they were able to deliver the project early, saving the company money in the long term. However, they stop short of explaining the trade-offs they had to make, what requirements were still outstanding or what other issues must now be addressed (such as longer maintenance costs).

How to Avoid This Mistake

Avoiding the thievery perception is easy – it’s called transparency. As a leader, you will always be called upon to balance commitments, resources and time. There will be a never ending shuffle as many operating plans require change in the face of altering conditions. Understanding this and responding effectively is  a requirement of any good leader. The servant leaders, though, ensure the costs and trade-offs made in this shuffle are clear to all stake holders.

So the next time you need to borrow from tomorrow to make today look good, be sure you communicate to all your stake holders the trade-offs necessary to drive the chosen results. In so doing, you not only ensure transparency with the team, but you also drive the greatest opportunity for sustainable success – and that is the sign of a great servant leader.

Question: Have you seen others steal from the tomorrow? What were the results and how do you avoid doing the same?


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Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner is the founder and principal of Modern Servant Leader and Radiant Forest, LLC. He has studied and promoted servant leadership awareness and adoption for over 20 years. He is the author of 2 leadership books and has 2 decades of corporate management and leadership experience. His corporate experience spans CIO, VP, Director, and many management roles at Fortune 500, INC 500, and Nonprofits. Ben’s education includes a B.S. in Management Science & Information Systems from Penn State University and an MBA from Lehigh University. Ben's Full Profile Here: About Ben Lichtenwalner

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