When the going gets tough, the tough get going (to Cancun)
Similar to a post that I wrote in December about “A lesson in (poor) Leadership”, a political leader is once again in the news, accused of failing to lead from the front. In this case, it is Texas senator Ted Cruz who reportedly left Houston for a vacation escape to Cancun at the height of the worst winter storm in Texas in 70 years. This article is not about that story, his decision to leave or return early or the motivations behind them. This article is about the optics of what a leader does and the impact it has on their employees and others who follow them.
Clearly in the cases of Ontario Minister of Finance Rod Philips, Senator Ted Cruz, Alberta Municipal Affairs Minister Tracy Allard, Niagara Health CEO Dr. Tom Stewart, Jason Kenney’s chief of staff Jamie Huckabay and numerous others who have recently had the public spotlight shine negatively on them, leaders must constantly earn the right to lead and there are consequences when they don’t. Earning and keeping this right is difficult and fragile and optics play a bigger role than many seem to understand.
A natural instinct of many people seems to be to react to adversity by blaming someone else. When a company does a layoff, do workers blame their job loss on their poor productivity or the reality that the products they built are not competitive, or do they blame the CEO? When taxes rise, do citizens acknowledge the costs of delivering the services that they are demanding or do they blame “government waste”, the “high salaries” of the politicians that they elect or the “gold plated pensions” of public sector employees?
The reality is that leaders are in the spotlight. It is the unwritten part of the job description that we sign up for when we accept the promotion. The higher the position that we are in, the brighter and more focused the spotlight. Our actions and decisions will be scrutinized and criticized in a way that is often unbalanced and unfair. That should not be a surprise to anyone in those roles and should be accepted as a cost to be borne by anyone seeking greater power or leadership. It is fair? – probably not. Are the facts often taken out of context or amplified in a negative way? – probably yes. Are leaders judged against a different yardstick than the followers hold themselves accountable to? – again likely yes. But none of these factors change the reality of leadership.
The job is being a leader is hard enough without adding the challenges of self-inflicted injuries. So, what can a leader do to build and maintain the trust that they need to earn as the currency of leadership?
I believe there are 3 keys: empathy, humbleness, and vulnerability.
My experience is that people want their voices to be heard, their opinions considered, and their positions understood. Most are rational thinkers who will respond positively (even when the decision is not in their favour), if the above conditions are met and if an explanation behind the decision is made. By having genuine empathy for the plight and concerns of their followers, a leader can demonstrate that they understand and appreciate the concerns and that their actions either address the concerns or empathically explain why they can’t.
Any actions that are counter to this damage trust and negatively shine in the spotlight.
As a leader, surround yourself with people who will tell you the truth, even when you don’t want to hear it and they will stop you from doing things or taking actions that lack empathy.
No one likes an arrogant jerk and people take pleasure in seeing someone else’s big ego being attacked and deflated. Simply put, don’t be that target and don’t take actions that create a perception of that is who you are. Again, the best guardrails you can put in place is creating a culture where people near you openly speak the truth to you. Sycophants will tell you what you want to hear, but not what you need to hear.
Vulnerability is about honesty, safety, asking and listening. It is being able to talk about what we are afraid of. These are the things that we think about at 3am in the morning when we have been awoken and can’t back to sleep. But being vulnerable is also about creating a safe place for others to talk about their concerns and fears and what supports they need. Courage is not about being afraid but rather about the ability to do things and move forward when you are afraid. My experience is people respond positively to leaders who are open about who they are and what are their fears.
So, watch your optics. The reality of who you are is only what others perceived it to be and actions do speak louder than words.