Everything a leader says and does is scrutinized for meaning because being a leader assumes importance as a form of communication, often far beyond what the leader imagines. People watch what leaders say and don’t say, what they do and don’t do.
My dear friend Roger D’Aprix, author of The Credible Corporation, tells a story about an employee in a focus group who emphasized the importance of the leader’s impact. “The boss makes the weather,” the employee said.
We notice where our bosses sit, where they park or whether they use public transit, what’s first and last on their agendas, and questions they ask (or don’t). We watch their body language. We note their tone of voice and facial expressions. We pay close attention to what they wear, who they promote, and who they ignore. Then we do what they do.
I recently worked with a new leader of a large company’s business unit. His team is still trying to figure him out. All eyes were on him as he entered a meeting 20 minutes after the planned start time, poured himself coffee, spoke quickly to some of the meeting participants and then sat at the head of the table–in the authority position.
Within his first few minutes, he communicated that being late to meetings is no big deal and that he’s the boss.
The first agenda item called for updates from several of the business unit’s team members. As each team member reported, their eye contact was largely on Mr. Leader. But Mr. Leader was busy with other things. As he pretended to listen, he was either banging away on his laptop or thumbing away on his smart phone. Occasionally, he looked up and proffered opinions, only some of which were relevant to the ongoing conversation. He was communicating: I’m very important. I’m very busy. I’m not 100 percent here for you.
As the meeting moved along, Mr. Leader began silently excusing himself to step outside the meeting room to engage in smartphone conversations. The meeting went on without him. By noon of this all-day meeting, most people had intellectually and emotionally checked out. They too, were banging on their laptops and thumbing away on their smart phones.
When you take a leadership role–whether CEO or first line leader–you take a role in a fishbowl. People will take their cues from you and will replicate your behavior.
If you’re late, your people will be late.
If you take copious notes at meetings, your people will take copious notes at meetings.
If you are aggressively challenging your people, your people will aggressively challenge.
If you ask supportive questions, your people will ask supportive questions.
Leaders must be what they want others to be.