Years ago, I had a very difficult boss. One-on-one he wasn’t a bad guy. He was warm and likable. But in a group—particularly in meetings—he become another person. Dr. Jekyll became Mr. Hyde.
He would suddenly become cold and aloof. If I, or someone on my team, reported good news, he either didn’t acknowledge it or quickly dismissed it.
“Okay, we get it. You had a great month. Can we move on?” he would snap.
If we confessed bad news, he would begin his interrogation. He would bludgeon us with questions, one after another. He often asked the same question more than once, wearing us down and sucking the life out of us. We would leave these meetings depleted and discouraged.
I was very much aware of the impact he had on me. I vowed I would never lead this way when I got promoted.
As leaders, we possess more power than we think. But we can only use it for good if we understand it and embrace it. We need to remind ourselves of these four leadership realities:
- People are aware of our role. As much as we may want to be “just one of the troops,” our people can’t separate us from our role in the organization. Even if it’s only subconscious, they know we can advance, hold back, or derail their careers. This colors their perception and interactions with us.
- People notice our behavior. This is easy to forget. When I was just beginning my career, I noticed how my boss treated his assistant, whether or not he was punctual to meetings, and what he did when he was angry. So did my colleagues. We often spoke of it to one another. We noticed the most trivial details.
- People amplify our words and actions. This is the scary part. We may think we are just being firm, but our people see us as angry. “He chewed me out,” she reports to her friends. Or we ask a question, and our people interpret this as a lack of trust. Everything gets dialed up a click or two.
- People create stories to explain our behavior. This is just human nature. We inherently try to see the patterns behind the facts and create meaning. Sometimes we get the story right; often we get it wrong. Regardless, we knit together the facts and create narratives to make sense of our world.
As leaders, we don’t need to resist these truths. Instead, we need to be intentional with our words and actions, aware we are constantly modeling what we believe and expect. It’s not unlike parenting. More is caught than taught.
This is a challenge but also a great opportunity.