For Leaders, There Is No Off Switch


February 12, 2008

by Marshall Goldsmith

“Does this mean that I have to watch what I say – and worry about how I act – in every meeting for the rest of my career?” Harry asked.

I had been asked by the present CEO, Jim, to coach his direct report, the potential CEO, Harry, who was an executive vice-president. As part of our coaching process, Harry was asked to seek feedback from all of his key stakeholders – including Jim.

Leadership Requires Restraint

Jim was giving Harry feedback on his recent behavior in a team meeting that had been viewed by some colleagues as inappropriate for an executive at Harry’s level. Overall, Harry was seen as a strategic genius, with an amazing business mind, who was also a little rough around the edges in his dealings with people. He was viewed as sometimes making off-the-cuff comments that could be unintentionally hurtful to others. Harry’s reaction to this feedback indicated that he believed some of his colleagues were being unduly critical.

“Welcome to my world!” Jim sighed. “If you ever want to become a CEO, get used to it. People are going to be listening to what you say – and watching how you act – in every meeting for the rest of your career. You should be thankful that you are getting this honest feedback – and that you are being given the opportunity to learn from it.”

Jim’s advice was dead-on. The higher up you go in an organization, the more people will be listening to your every word and interpreting your every action. And thanks to some bad behavior on the part of some senior executives and the bigger pay packages given to senior management, executives are under more scrutiny and face greater pressure than ever before.

Avoid Internet Infamy

In the old days the business press was much more likely to give big executives a pass on modest displays of inappropriate behavior. Those days are over. Advances in technology make even the slightest faux pas blog fodder in a matter of moments. And the ease with which people can shoot and upload pictures and videos to the Internet means just about any situation has the potential to be made public.

But despite the potential embarrassment such snippets of information or video can cause, the most important reason for leaders to worry about their behavior is not the media. It’s the potential impact on the people that they are leading. As a leader, your behavior matters. The higher up you go in the organization, the greater the impact you have – and the greater the number of people who are affected by that behavior. If you want to be a great leader, make peace with the idea that you need to watch what you say and how you act for the rest of your career.

While some parts of leadership may seem exciting – rallying the troops, achieving the vision, celebrating great success – others can be excruciatingly dull, yet are still very important. No one ever made a movie about leaders sitting through long meetings or watching presentations, but that is a lot of what organizational leaders do.

You Owe It to Your Team

Many executives spend hour after hour listening to potentially boring PowerPoint presentations on topics that they either already know about or are not going to change anyway. The best leaders realize that these presentations may be the result of hours of effort by employees at all levels in their organization. They realize how much these employees care about their boss’s reaction.

Strong leaders actively listen and communicate with caring, interest, and enthusiasm no matter how tired they may be. They realize that everyone in the room is not only listening to their words but is also watching their face. Signs of boredom or indifference by peers can be ignored, yet those same reactions from a leader can be devastating. On the other hand, recognition and support can validate employees and provide needed inspiration after a great effort.

If you want to become a great leader, recognize that there is no “off” switch when you are around the people you are leading. Realize that your increased authority comes with increased scrutiny and increased responsibility.

The next time you are in a meeting with your staff members and you start to become bored or tune out, imagine you are on video. Imagine that your words, actions, and even expressions are being taped and sent to people who care.

Then think about the fact that people in the room are watching you. Your team is listening – and they do care. Act accordingly.