Weiner roast. The Battle of the Bulge. Don't tweet when in heat.
Yeah, we indulged our inner adolescent this past week. Whether you vote blue or red, you couldn't help snickering over the aptly named congressman having tweeted a saucy photo to a woman. Of course, the news veered from trifling to entertaining on Representative Weiner's media tour, where his imaginative and legalistic explanations delivered a one-man stimulus to pundits and comics everywhere. Like a teenager on a joy ride, he seemed to relish the spotlight.
Predictably, Weiner's ride ended with flashing lights and flat tires. Facing further embarrassment, the congressman blubbered and groveled, while making pubertal claims that he did no wrong and vowing to keep his job. In a New York minute, Weiner had caused irreparable damage to his image, aspirations, and marriage—not to mention his institution, constituents, and party. In the end, the only winners were Twitter and Fruit of the Loom (BRK/A).
Of course, you don't need to be an elected official to make a fool of yourself. Sure, your foibles may not inspire a New York Post headline, but the stakes are just as high in boardrooms and cube farms. So what can we learn from Representative Weiner's excellent adventure? Consider the following advice.
1) Keep Your Guard Up. In any leadership role, your team is watching you 24/7. Anything you say or do is amplified. That means you must remain self-aware. Whether you suffer from exhaustion or hubris, a single mistake can spin out of control. Don't kid yourself: You have enemies ready to pounce. As for friends, they may stand beside you initially but will quickly turn on you when self-preservation comes into play. Whether Weiner's conduct exhibited bad judgment or bad character is for voters to decide. Regardless, it sowed doubts regarding his fitness for office. Those same doubts could plague you someday, unless you curb your worst impulses.
2) Stop stonewalling. "It's always the cover-up that brings you down." From Richard Nixon to John Edwards, that truism is rarely wrong. Deny all you want, but the truth will eventually trickle out. People can forgive bad behavior, however inappropriate. What they cannot accept is deception. When you make a mistake, come clean early, take the hit, and move on. Don't drag it out, calling greater attention to yourself. The later you take responsibility, the less people will believe your account, let alone your sincerity. Just ask Representative Weiner.
3) Don't get cute. Let me get this straight: You deny sending the photo, but won't deny those boxers are yours? Answers that parse or evade only motivate people to dig deeper and interpret new meanings in past words and deeds. They invite your critics to caricature and ridicule you—and that's often what people remember most. Even more, they detract from your message and goals. The bottom line is that playing games just makes you look guilty. Your word is your bond. Inevitably, bobbing and weaving makes you less effective. You may keep your job, but what good is that when you've lost credibility?
4) Don't abuse technology. Social media is a means to connect and humanize yourself. Treated carelessly, it can destroy your personal brand. Make a tasteless tweet and it's forever archived by the Library of Congress.Behave like a drunken lout and a video phone will memorialize your shame on YouTube (GOOG).Leave a randy e-mail or Facebook post and it's certain to reach Bangalore within the hour. The old barriers are gone. Everyone is now a journalist and filmmaker—voyeur and exhibitionist—and has the means to publicize it. While privacy may not be dead, the risk that your Christian Bale moments will be revealed is ever-greater. At work, you dress, speak, and act in ways that ensure people will see you at your best. Technology is no different. It can accentuate your strengths while laying bare your weaknesses.
5) Align your public and private personas. If you knew Representative Weiner, it was probably because he had launched strident, holier-than-thou tirades on the House floor. Sure, pointing fingers and lobbing verbal grenades earns time on cable news. But power mixed with denial and hypocrisy creates narratives that people remember. In this case, Mr. Weiner's conduct exposed an inconsistency between how he acts in public and how he acts behind anonymity. In essence, the congressman forgot that his actions reflect on those around him—spouse, family, and staffers. His name, in reality, is their name. It is no different with you. Your reputation is synonymous with that of your team. If you want to enjoy the fruits of leadership, you cannot escape its curse: You must be the person everyone believes and expects you to be—nothing less. That, more than anywhere else, is where the congressman from Queens fell short.