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Leadership: Watch for Reactions

The other day while watching the making of a short video comedy, I noticed how the director made time to get reaction shots from key members of the cast. Anyone who knows comedy knows that what is often funniest, particularly on film, is not the comic line itself, but the reaction of others to it. The look of surprise, shock, or grimace pays off the gag.

The other day while watching the making of a short video comedy, I noticed how the director made time to get reaction shots from key members of the cast. Anyone who knows comedy knows that what is often funniest, particularly on film, is not the comic line itself, but the reaction of others to it. The look of surprise, shock, or grimace pays off the gag.

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There is a lesson in this for leaders. And it is this: pay attention to how people react to what you do or say. Carl Bass of AutoDesk was recently quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying that when he became CEO, “My IQ jumped 10 points and I became much funnier.” What Bass discovered is that proximity to power can have unintended effects on people.

Something said in an off-hand manner will be taken as an order. Or something left unsaid may give people license to ignore it. The higher the rank the more ripple effects a leader’s action cause. And for that reason, leaders need to pay attention to their behavior, especially toward people over whom they have authority. More specifically leaders need to stretch their frame of observation so it covers what’s happening now as well as what happens later. Here are some suggestions:

Watch what you say. Words do matter. Be clear, coherent and consistent, as well as frequent. Those are obvious lessons. But pay attention to how people react when you speak. Are they shocked? Are they bored? Are they confused? Do a check with people in the room to make certain you are understood. For important matters, follow up regularly to see that people are doing what you have asked them to do. [Note: Ease up on the profanity when with subordinates. Yes, it is rampant in certain fields – market traders, entertainment, and sports, and the military. But keep in mind, rough language is highly masculine; that can be off-putting to women as well as to men not inured in the culture.]

Watch what you do. Actions speak louder than words. For example, when the person in charge appears annoyed or irritated, people pay attention. The boss’s displeasure can cause people to squirm or sink in their seats. Sometimes the stern look is necessary; it helps get people focused. On the other hand, there are times when the boss may be thinking about something else and as a result look frustrated when he is not. In medieval times, such looks could send a man to the chopping block. Today it may send teams off on tangents, trying to please a boss who is not displeased in the least. Good advice for senior leaders is to get in the habit of relaxing their facial muscles.

Watch for what does NOT occur. Bosses get pushed and pulled in multiple directions. It takes discipline to remember what you said, or didn’t say. To ensure you stay on track, make notes of key decisions. Put notes into your planning schedule so you can be certain to follow up with people at key milestones. Also, make it known that your door is open. Insist on being in the loop, but not part of the loop. That is, you want information, but you don’t want to be doing the work of the team.

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Here’s a note of caution. When you are the top dog, everyone is trying to curry favor with you. Beware of the person who brings you nothing but good news about himself, but nothing but bad news about others. He is the perennial-pleasure type who measures your office and sits in your chair when you are not around. He wants your job and is willing to treat others shamefully to get what he wants. Most leaders are adept at rooting out these “ferret types,” but not always. As a result, the organization is the poorer for the plotting and back-stabbing of these perennial pleasers.

Sooner or later all leaders have their twilight. Dwight Eisenhower joked that leaving the presidency hurt his golf game. “A lot more people beat me now.” That’s a lesson in humility that every leader needs to keep front and center. Sometimes the legacy of leadership is less about individual actions but rather about collection actions, starting with the development of others to take the lead. That is a long-term reaction to what you do in the here and now, and so it is important to lead always with eyes and ears wide open.

Sources:Phred Dvorak “In the Lead: A Different Animal Seeks the No. 1 Job; Often, It’s Not No. 2” Wall Street Journal 10.22.07

John Baldoni • Leadership Expert:Executive Coach/Author/Speaker • Baldoni Consulting, LLC • www.johnbaldoni.com