A few years ago a former colleague taught me a phrase that, from the moment I heard it, has had a high stickability factor. The phrase is “hanging out with the phenomenon.” It comes from the world of anthropology where people know that to really understand a thing (a culture, a community, an event), you have to be ready to hang with it. To watch it. To see what happens and what doesn’t happen. To look again and catch the things you missed the first time. Now that’s a phrase worth remembering!
One organizational phenomenon that inspires me to hang is the interpersonal scurrying that inevitably accompanies an executive visit. As you have probably experienced for yourself, the executive pilgrimage to remote organizational locations is a ritual that inspires a range of fascinating behaviors from colleagues. Some are downright predatory. Many are self-serving. Still others show up to the formal events but shy away in a corner making you wonder why they came in the first place. You know what I’m talking about. You’ve been there. And you, too, have seen the veritable potpourri of the “behaviors of the led.”
My most recent brush with this phenomenon was wildly instructive as a number of follower personalities emerged rather clearly:
- The pre-event braggart. A person with this personality lets everyone know that he warranted a special one-one-one meeting with the executive prior to the official event. He takes great care to publicize his pre-meeting and sometimes goes so far as to further monopolize the executive’s time at the planned public events too.
- The routine breaker. A person with this personality meticulously gathers intelligence about the logistics of the executive’s visit and deliberately changes his or her routine for the singular purpose of being seen. People who think nothing of taking extended lunches on normal days can be seen working furiously at their desks over the noon hour. People who “work from home” more than they work from work actually appear in their offices. People whose preferred mode of dress is casual can be seen wearing ties. For these routine breakers and others, it’s all about changing things up for the purpose of visibility.
- The common threader. A person with this personality uses public conversational space (such as a dinner, a town hall meeting, a speech) to establish a one-on-one connection with the executive. You may hear someone with this personality say during a meeting, “My daughter’s best friend’s cousin attended the same school that your kids did in Alaska. She loved it!” It’s a quick fire attempt to establish a relationship (i.e., I’m like you, therefore you should promote me!).
- The fish thrower. A person with this personality uses a public Q&A forum to ask a question that’s easy to answer (and often skirts the real issues in a company). Such a question is often easier for the executive than a layup is for a professional basketball player. But, it creates goodwill.
- The positively positive. People with this personality only talk about good things: Good things about themselves, good things about their clients, good things about their projects. With one fell swoop they cast events in a positive light, and, whoosh, the bad news is erased forever from the annals of history. Don’t get me wrong, a healthy dose of optimism is a very important characteristic for leaders to demonstrate. But as we know, the only productive optimism is the realistic kind that comes from real knowledge of what’s working and what’s not.
- The self immolator. This person is the exact opposite of the fish thrower. He asks the tough questions, and often in such a critical way that he sets himself (and anyone within a 3-foot radius of him) on fire.
So how on earth does any of this babble relate to leadership? As an executive leader (the “phenomenon” as it were), it’s probably worth noticing who’s doing what in the social setting and very carefully comparing that to who’s doing what in the world of actual work. Sometimes there are big differences. But to accurately assess the work horses from the merely self-serving, we need to break through the celebrity to get to know our people. Easier said than done.