I strongly believe that good leaders are good human beings first. Kindness, empathy, fairness—at the top, virtues matter more than skills.
I find it hard to comprehend how leaders—intelligent, sharp individuals in general—are often unable to see that they are expected to set good examples. No matter how small or big an organisation, employees notice when a leader does not consistently practise what he preaches.
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The era of social executives—leaders who are no longer “celebrities,” engaging and conversing on social media, and employees finding their voices on platforms like Glassdoor and Twitter—is well and truly here. It is not hard to understand that if you are grooming yourself to be a leader, everything you say or do (or don’t), matters. Every opinion of yours, regardless of the platform on which it is expressed, is subject to scrutiny—by media and analysts, but most importantly, by your employees.
This is why stories of Uber andits “bad boy” CEO never fail to surprise me. Travis Kalanick’s business is rooted in the sharing economy. He is on Twitter. How can he not understand how reputation really works in our times? How difficult is it to understand the repercussions of his frequently reported bad behaviour?
I remember an experience with a leader in my career. She was intelligent for the most part, empathetic too. However, she used to walk into office each morning with a scary expression on her face, throwing her weight around all the time. It all just seemed unhealthy and extremely unbecoming of a leader. While I agree that leadership is hardly a popularity contest, how difficult is it to just show some office etiquette when you expect the same from your employees? Your employees can see your lack of etiquette and they are losing respect for you with each instance of it—it can’t be rocket science to see that!
The optics—they matter
After a decade in reputation management, the one thing I have learned is that wrong as it may sound, optics matter just as much as your heart being in the right place. It is simply a matter of consistency and not sending the wrong signals to your employees, customers, or the audience in general.
Inconsistency is by far the biggest leadership mistake I see even sharp, intelligent leaders make. And I don’t just mean inconsistency in how they treat different employees based on their biases, or how appreciative they are of some skills and dismissive of the rest. What I mean is inconsistency in what they expect from their employees and what they themselves deliver.
If you are making a rule about entering the office at 9 am each day (cardinal sin in our times, if you ask the experts) but you believe it is alright for you and your close circuit to saunter in at 10:30, you are telling your employees that you believe there are different rules for different people. While this may have been acceptable 20 or even 10 years ago, working with millennial employees is a different ballgame. Now, respect comes from consistency and delivery, not from designations.
The bottom line is that if you want your employees to value your ideas and follow your advice, you cannot be seen doing the opposite of what you expect from them. ‘Leading from the front’ is not just an old-school adage; it is an important leadership lesson. If you are cutting costs, start with your own benefits. If it is crunch time and employees need to stay long hours, don’t pack up and leave at 5 pm. If formal wear is the rule at work (another cardinal sin for our day and age), don’t walk into work in your cropped denims.
Now, more than ever before, actions speak louder than words. Never forget—for a leader, nothing is unimportant.
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