When I was a kid, I remember the old playground taunt – ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but works will never hurt me”. I don’t think that could be any further from the truth. What we say matters and very often more than you know. How we choose the words we say, the tone and body language that goes along with it, the context in which is it said, all send a powerful message to the listener.
Sometimes we can say something without thinking and in that moment change the course of someone’s life. It happens all the time and we rarely see the ripples of impact we create. Imagine how many times you are busy, and someone needs your help and without even looking up you tell them, ‘I’m really busy right now but I’ll get back to you as soon as I get a chance’. A pretty common statement you could hear in almost any work environment and it seems innocent enough.
As leaders, everything you do and say is magnified and the greater your perceived authority over someone, the greater the magnification. I’ve seen people ignore that and act as they please because they don’t think it is fair that they should be treated any differently than anyone else. Or worse yet, because they’re leaders they feel privileged to do and say anything they want. I’ll bet you could name a few without thinking too hard.
Even the simple example above can have significant long-term negative consequences. Imagine that employee who looks up to you and finally musters up the courage to approach you ask a question or for help. It may take them days or weeks to finally do it and when they do take that chance, all the things that they were afraid of are validated. The message they hear is that they aren’t important enough to be a priority for you and that their needs don’t matter. It may not be your intention, but they don’t know that. All they know is that the thing they feared the most happened.
To you, the incident is forgotten moments after it happens, but for that member of your team it will be a scene that is replayed over and over in their mind. It will likely become the topic of conversation with others on the team and that larger than life persona that exists about you will grow and be validated. T he next time that person needs help, you’re probably the last person they will consider going to – and the same thing goes for everyone they tell their story to.
But how you as a leader or authority figure feel about how you should be perceived doesn’t matter and that is hard to hear. What is real is that you are larger than life like it or not. At times it feels like your every word, facial expression and action are microscopically picked apart and given an interpretation. Here’s the truth – that’s just part of the deal. You may not like it or agree with it, but it won’t change the fact that it is how things are.
As a leader, that’s hard to hear. For one, most of us don’t want to be put on some pedestal and burdened with a whole set of expectations we never signed up for. Too bad. That’s the way it is. It means being constantly vigilant and aware. It means putting others needs before your own. It means admitting when you’ve made a mistake and being willing to be vulnerable enough to apologize directly to the person. And most of all it means being authentic and genuinely caring – because people can smell a fraud a mile off.
The good news is, that no matter where you are right now, you can always begin the journey to become the leader you want to be AND the leader you team needs you to be. You’ll have to put them first and as leaders that’s how it should be. You’ll have to pay attention like you never have to before and to think that you aren’t used to thinking about or maybe even aren’t sure how to do. But here’s what I know to be true. It’s what we need from our leaders. It’s what we expect from them. And it’s what you signed up for.
What kind of leader will you be? The choice is entirely up to you. Choose well.