I’m sure many of you have watched the hit comedy series The Office in either its UK or US versions. If you haven’t, let me tell you that is one the most embarrassingly funny satires of office life that you’re ever likely to see. Its ability to make people squirm lies in the accuracy of its observation of human behaviour. I dare you to watch the series and not see things you have done yourself. The writers didn’t even have to exaggerate.
The Office also satirises various kinds of leadership style – both from the formal leaders in the fictional business and the informal ones. The wannabe leader, the rebel leader, the visitor from Head Office. Once again they are funny because they lampoon behaviours we all see in working environments every day: vanity, treachery, abdication of responsibility, favouritism, discrimination.
And that’s not so funny, when you stop to think about it.
What leaders forget is that that they’re under surveillance around the clock. From the way they greet security guards, to their clothing choices, to the food they eat and the calls they make.
They are watched by the silent majority – a group of people that, by contrast, leaders know relatively little about. As a CEO friend of mine says: ‘They know every little detail of our lives, yet we know nothing of theirs.’When people know they are under surveillance they usually try to turn it to their advantage. That’s how leaders must think – what visible impression do I wish to make, and what aural record will I leave? Both are important but the aural record seems to be more persistent.
Have you noticed that colleagues are adept at recording sound bytes? They will recite back, chapter and verse, exactly what you said to them about promotion on merit at 11 am on Friday 25th October 2004. And the problem is, you may not recall the incident yourself.
The process of considering how you appear to staff is called Visible Leadership. It shouldn’t be false, because holding a pretence for any length of time is exhausting and will always end in failure – in the leader being ‘found out’. Instead, it should be an authentic, if measured and controlled version of your natural self. If your language becomes profane under stress, note that and rein it in. If you tend to be a bit touchy-feely in your interactions, reflect on that too, and decide how to adjust for #MeToo.
Leading by example needn’t always mean leading from the front: arm outstretched towards the future and head turned over your shoulder to check whether anyone is actually following.
Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside