Harvard Business Review

Leaders Are Always On


Posted on Harvard Business Review: May 10, 2010 10:43 AM

The gaffe when he thought the microphone was off might not be the major reason Gordon Brown didn't win the British election. But it showed that he forgot a leadership lesson: Act as if the audio is always on.

At a rally shortly before the election, Prime Minister Brown was asked some awkward questions about foreign workers that he answered politely. A few minutes later, he was heard over an open channel and later the broadcast airwaves complaining to aides for exposing him to "a bigoted woman." His insult and apology dominated press coverage.

There is no "off" switch for leaders. There is barely a backstage. Leaders walk around with spotlights, cameras, and microphones on them all the time.

Visibility rises with the leadership level, even though, paradoxically, top leaders can command the trappings of privacy, such as special entrances into buildings. In meetings, facial expressions are scrutinized for clues to a leader's thinking. Word spreads fast—even faster if tweeted on Twitter. I've sat in countless top management conferences characterized by delayed reaction time. Before anyone will laugh at a joke or appear enthusiastic about an announcement, they look at the CEO's reaction. New Xerox CEO Ursula Burns was reportedly coached by her predecessor, Anne Mulcahy, to keep a poker face because people are always watching.

Followers can be acutely attuned to the merest hint of a leader's state of mind and act on their assumptions, sometimes tragically. I call this the Murder in the Cathedral problem. T.S. Eliot's play portrayed the assassination in 1170 of Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury, by aides to King Henry II. As the story goes, Henry blurted out in frustration one day that he wished someone would get rid of that pesky priest. His aides murdered Beckett, and Henry did penance for the rest of his life.

Leaders at the top cannot afford to let down their hair or separate themselves from the institution. A former CEO I know received bad press for a controversial statement. But that was just the hammer detractors needed to put another nail in his coffin. He had a habit of saying to audiences that he was welcoming them as President of X, which meant that he wanted to hear all perspectives, but then, when the pleasantries were finished, say that he wanted to give them his own strong personal views about the topic at hand, which tended to offend.

Smart leaders know that they are always representing their institution. Last year, months before he was appointed CEO, P&G's Robert McDonald posed an ethical dilemma to my MBA students. He asked them whether an executive who saw employees acting in a rowdy fashion at a bar after work hours should call them on it, or just let it go. His answer is that those who want to lead reflect the company's values 24/7.

Maybe there isn't a company compatriot in the bar with you. But it's a dangerous leadership trap to believe that you can keep anything private that might be embarrassing or worse if revealed. As evidence, consider the parade of political casualties over sex scandals and business casualties over accounting scandals—enough Governors, Senators, CEOs, and investment bankers to line a city block.

Leaders are wise to behave with a consciousness of how other people might view what they do—and the awareness that people probably will view it. That requires truly authentic leaders whose characters are not mental constructions faked for the job but run deeply in their hearts and souls.

In the age of social media, instant video feeds via cell phones, and hidden surveillance cameras, this advice about authenticity increasingly applies to everyone who aspires to leadership.

Copyright © 2012 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter holds the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professorship at Harvard Business School, where she specializes in strategy, innovation, and leadership for change. Her strategic and practical insights have guided leaders of large and small organizations worldwide for over 25 years. The former Editor of Harvard Business Review (1989-1992), Professor Kanter has been named to The Times of Londonlist of the "50 most powerful women in the world".

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