I’ve interviewed leaders and followers for years about the impact of leaders’ behavior on their organizations and their people. I’ve come to a somewhat disturbing, yet obvious conclusion: a good deal of their impact is completely unintentional.
We spend a lot of our energy thinking about what to say and what not to, how to introduce strategic change, and how to improve morale, for instance. Yet, there are plenty of indicators that people around us pay much more attention to what we don’t say and what we don’t follow up on than what we do.
Leaders are constantly watched and the people who depend on their beneficence for a livelihood are continuously interpreting every expression, tone of voice, mood, like and dislike, and noticing exactly what they notice. Yet many leaders think their periodic official pronouncements should be all that is remembered and should somehow outweigh the stream of behavior, speech, emotion, and choice that is flowing the rest of the time.
Humans are conclusion-drawing animals and we will never leave dots unconnected.
One CEO told me a couple years ago, “I can’t believe people still hold the one time I got a little heated up against me after two years!” I could assure him that his people would remember his angry outburst for a lot longer than two years. Particularly since it was accompanied by a persistently gravelly demeanor that suggested it might erupt again at any time.
I’ve heard senior leaders complain about the lack of courage of the managers who report to them (privately, of course). Observation of their team meetings led me to wonder why anyone would risk the public drubbing the executives thought mild.
Leaders are amplified human beings. Senior executives in particular would do well to imagine that they are being broadcast across their domains at high volume. Their asides are remembered and repeated in the hallways and duplicated in text messages that spread much faster and with greater attention than any formal communication. What you whisper can be deafening to those whose antennae are turned to high sensitivity. And that would include nearly everyone who is downstream from you in your organization.
So, should you be more careful? Only if you want to make it worse. Nothing makes us more anxious than becoming conscious that someone is trying hard not to upset us. The only way out of this conundrum is what my friends Kerry Bunker and Michael Wakefield call authenticity. (You can read their book on leading through change for a more elegant discursion – and for full disclosure, the book is a CCL publication.)
For now, here are a few clues I’ve gleaned over the decades:
- Own the public reality of you. Be the first to embrace your embarrassing record of appalling behavior. Neither glory in it nor subject the rest of us to your earnest repentance. Just admit it and do what you can to pay attention for a change.
- Gather trusted friends and dependable enemies around you to give you the raw truth on the alarming reverberations of your blind trampling. Listen to them and add the feedback to clue number one.
- Recognize the size disparity: you think you’re just a regular person. Those who depend on you know you as massive. Listen to everyone, weigh everything, and do what is right for the organization without being dragged down by the well-deserved criticisms of your thinking, decisions, communication, intelligence, and moral failures. We need you to be a leader. You can do that without being a brick or a milksop.
- You’re a powerful symbol of the company. Whether you take yourself seriously or not, take seriously the iconic value you provide. A clerical friend of mine once threw a bible in the trash to make the point that the content was holy but the paper and leather were not. His ministry never recovered. You are the symbol and the voice for the identity and aspirations of your organization. When you accepted leadership, you gave up the right to indulge in indifferent self-expression.
What tips can you share about representing your organization while remaining authentic?
– Doug Riddle