Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Setting An Example

There is no more meaningless a line in the realm of leadership than ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’ One of the things that you can absolutely count on, whether you manage a Boy Scout Troop or a Fortune 500 company is that your behavior, your day-to-day actions, will be watched and copied. All of them.

All of the glossy charts on the wall, all the corporate bulletin boards – physical and electronic, all the public announcements, all the ‘town meetings, won’t matter a tinker’s damn if you don’t ‘walk-the-walk.’

And what does it mean to ‘walk-the-walk?’ Is it enough to say the right things at large gatherings, is it enough to have pertinent details about this or that activity so that you are always the best informed, is it enough to always dress appropriately, is it enough to know everyone’s name, or any of the other 101 traits that people note as signs of leadership?

The short and simple answer is: No.

The fact is that as people progress up the ladder of any organization several things happen: the first is that simply by having been in the organization for a while they know a good deal about it and about the various forces – economic, political, social, legal, etc. – that affect it. Second, they have people working for them who’s job it is to feed them information. They are ‘kept smart’ by the system. Third, if they have a decent aide or two they also have a steady stream of information coming into their office on whomever they are likely to meet today. If they are very good, there will be a list and one or two sentences on everyone in a given division if they are going to visit that division today, as well as a run-down on what the division does, it’s production numbers for the year, etc. This will allow them to not only seem to know all the details on the division as they walk through, it will allow them to seem to know many of the people. Fourth, after giving the basic two or three corporate briefs to perspective investors a dozen times or so, and having practiced it 50 times or so, the CEO has five or ten minutes of a ‘speech’ available without even thinking about it. For the average CEO to stand up and give some ‘off-the-cuff’ remarks should be as easy as breathing.

There are scores more examples of executives looking ‘good.’ It is really not substantially different than what many politicians do. All of this can be understood as nothing more than preparation and a bit of a ‘show.’ It will be enough for politicians. But it isn’t enough if you are actually going to motivate people to work hard for you.

The fact is that in the end most of the people who work for you are going to notice the little things that are big things: Are you positive and upbeat or are you angry? Do you treat people fairly? Do you take care of people or just use them? Do you hold to your word?

If you are the leader of an organization, any organization, it is accurate to say that your ‘mask’ must always be on. You always need your game face. When you are buying groceries and you bump into one of your people, when you are going to the movies, when you are dropping kids off at school – whatever it is – you have to be cheerful, confidant, and glad to see them. If you don’t remember their name, say “I’m Pete. I’m sorry, I forgot your name’ and shake their hand. Now listen to them. Pay attention, because they will say something and it is directed at you. And how you respond, the way you stand, whether you pay attention, will get around the company. Count on it.

The people who work for you, no matter how senior you are, no matter how intellectual and jaundiced you think your employees are, will notice everything about you. And here is the important point: eventually they will reflect it in everything they do. You don’t need to be perfect: no one expects that. But they do expect honesty and fairness and hard work and the truth. If you are telling the board one thing and the people who work for you another, it will get out.

The French essayist and playwright Jean Giraudoux once remarked that: "The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you've got it made." He was, of course, being cynical. In the end sincerity will either support everything you do, or insincerity will undermine it.

If you are not sincere about wanting to lead, about wanting to build a better Scout Troop or a better Bank or a better Oil Company, then you should leave. More to the point, if you don’t really care about the people of your company, they will figure it out sooner or later. It may take a while, but they will eventually find out. And when they do everything you say or do will be at risk. Decide to lead and commit to it, and commit to your people and your organization, or get out of the way.


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