(Posted on LinkedIn on Nov 8, 2014)
As a child, I thrived on an endless supply of fables, legends, and stories. Many of them have stood the test of time, and are amazingly profound in their relevance to human behaviour even today. One such short story is Hans Christian Andersen’sThe Emperor’s New Clothes. If you haven’t read it already, I would recommend that you do! It’s a brilliant story about an emperor and his people who are worried about keeping pretences at all costs, even at the cost of denying the obvious that even a child could see through. (Pun unintended!)
As I read this story once again today, I realize we all behave like the emperor and his minister, or his subjects. We look for outward traits and behaviors in leaders and when we don’t find those traits or behaviors, we assume that we are unfit and that something is wrong in ourselves. Overt negative behavior like shouting or abusing is obvious to everyone. But how do you recognize the signs of implicit negative leadership?
We assume that an individual’s title, designation, qualification, or outward appearance or mannerisms indicate his character. We live in a visual world where food is delicious because of the way it is presented, or a woman is beautiful because of the way she looks. Like the emperor and his subjects, when we see something in that individual that does not resonate with leadership behavior, we ignore our inner voice and believe our perception to be incorrect.
How do we become like the child in that story who can clearly see the truth? Like the proof of the pudding is in its taste, here are a few examples of unsavoury behaviours that makes the child in us see the truth.
Leaders are humans, and all of us do feel helpless or powerless during certain situations. But throwing up our hands in despair and shrugging hopelessly when our teams look up to us for a solution, is an extremely disappointing behaviour. There is always something that can be done to improve the situation. The very least a leader could do, is show some signs of optimism and demonstrate willingness to listen and resolve the situation.
As leaders we represent the company to our teams. We all definitely have our moments of frustration with upper management, but it’s pretty uncool when a leader constantly keeps complaining about “the deplorable state of affairs” before his or her team. Similarly, maligning or ridiculing clients or other employees especially behind their backs, is another sign of a chink in the armour. It is always preferable discussing issues objectively with a view to find a solution.
Making inappropriate or unethical requests
Over and above requests that can trigger a sexual harassment complaint, there are other inappropriate requests from a leader that can ring loud warning bells. One of my friends during a coaching session talked about how a high level leader in the company asked for his personal bills to be entered as official bills in the system. My friend who worked in the Accounting department politely declined the request. The leader joked about it, but my friend was afraid about being fired. Of course that didn’t happen, but I did feel sad because the leader in question was very highly respected and admired in the company.
Self-centered or opportunistic behaviour
“You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
I think this describes perfectly what I’m talking about! There are managers who don’t even respond to emails unless you copy someone from the higher rank. Speaks volumes about their character, doesn’t it?
The leadership talks about non-tolerance towards certain behaviour but does not take action when their employees complain. The company boasts of an open culture, but the HR team never proactively reaches out to frontline teams to get their feedback and check whether everything is okay. And so on.
We expect leaders to be humane and capable of cutting through the red tape where it comes to employee policies. Layoffs are an unfortunate reality in today’s corporate scenario, but there is always a way of doing it that makes an employee walk out with his or her dignity intact. Your company may have a prolific leader at the helm, but if the exit process is not handled sensitively with empathy, then there are others watching and judging the leadership! These are the employees that the company still needs after all.
Poor response during calamity
I have already discussed this in a previous article “Leadership during Adversity”. Like they say, when the going gets tough, the tough hide!
“But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”
Like the child in the story, we must be able to see things the way they are. There are plenty of clear signs of a mediocre or poor leader if we only look and trust our own discernment. However, rather than passing judgment or worse, getting disillusioned, spotting these behaviors makes us conscious about what we shouldn’t do. There is a moral in every story after all.
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