Your reputation is the convergence of your words, actions, character, competence, and the perception of others. As you progress up the leadership chain, your team will grow and the perception of you will no longer be a direct result of your interactions and behaviors alone. Your team will play an increased role in how people perceive you. The larger your organization, the more you have to delegate authority. With that delegation, you empower your team to represent you and your organization.
It is a simple numbers problem: More people + More responsibility = Less time and ability to interact with each individual. Consider a Platoon Leader, charged with the leadership of a 36 to 42 Soldier formation. He is perfectly capable of interacting with his entire platoon on a daily basis. Sure, he should be aware of how his Squad Leaders and Team Leaders are representing his orders or actions, but it is much easier to observe. Now, consider a Brigade Commander, charged with leading thousands of Soldiers and Leaders. She has to trust leaders within her staff, and at echelon, with a certain measure of authority to represent her and the collective organization.
-Your reputation is like Humpty Dumpty sitting on a wall-
The popular nursery rhyme, “Humpty Dumpty,” provides an apt allegory of this challenge. While I would usually avoid the imagery of Commanders being “Kings” it is applicable to this scenario, as the “King’s” reputation is soon to fall. In the construct of this allegory, Humpty Dumpty (the egg perched on a wall) is the King’s reputation. The higher you go in your career/the spotlight, the higher the wall becomes (the bigger you are, the harder you fall – see The Bathsheba Syndrome). When this fragile and unstable egg (much like the fragility of reputation) falls off the wall and shatters, the King dispatches all of his horses and all of his men to do the repair. But, no matter how hard they try, they cannot put the King’s reputation back together again.
If this egg was important enough for “all the King’s horses, and all the King’s men” to repair it, why weren’t they guarding it in the first place? Why didn’t the King expect and inspect that they were properly representing him and the organization. Some might say, “Well, he trusted them”. Trust does not equal laissez-faire leadership. Leaders who imbue their subordinates with trust and authority are still responsible for communicating expectations. Inspect what you expect.
– Your team is as capable – if not more capable – of tarnishing your reputation within and outside of your organization as you are of building it. –
Marketing receives a negative connotation in the Army, similar to those who balk at “brand,” but – like money – marketing and brand are not evil. They are things, abstract ideas, and tools – they cannot be evil or dirty in and of themselves. A leader’s use, manipulation, or abuse of them is what can be altruistic and genuine or self-serving and detrimental. Columnist and CEO, Carrie Hensel, wrote in the Ann Arbor News, “everything is marketing, and everyone on your team is a company representative.” She outlines examples of actions that affect your company and you:
- The way your team members answer the phone.
- Each invoice you send.
- Every email that leaves your office.
- The way your president behaves […]
- The efficiency and kindness employed when a customer calls with a question or complaint.
Your team can also negatively influence how others perceive you, such as if they…
- … abuse your rank to obtain privileged positions creating a perception that our rank system is also a class system.
- … use the phrase “the Boss isn’t happy” or “the Boss is angry about…” that puts the organization on an emotional rollercoaster.
- … shield you from contradictory points of view or negative information that limits the importance of bottom-up feedback.
- … filter all information and guidance through themselves to restrict access to you thus consolidating power and limiting your perspective.
Leaders have to trust their teams, delegating authority and allowing their subordinate leaders to represent the organization. To consolidate power and authority at your level is as damaging, if not more destructive to your organization. Here are some steps you can take to ensure congruency of message, intent, and perception across your team:
Lead By Example
Your reputation and expectations start with how you lead. The adage, “do as I say, not as I do,” rarely works out well. Your words and actions give permission for your team to act similarly. If you are rude to others, short-tempered, manipulative, or entitled, your team will model these behaviors. If you want your team to value dignity, respect, humility, work ethic, etc. – you need to demonstrate it. They will take their cue from you. How you interact with people, treat them, and talk about others will set the example for your organization. (Side note: be weary of limiting your organization to your strengths, placing increased emphasis on your personal talents and skills. This will limit the growth and breadth of your organization.) While your personal example is perhaps the most vital tool for ensuring congruency of message, it is not enough.
Clearly Communicate Expectations
Leaders clearly define, and constantly reiterate, their expectations for their team. If you dislike the colloquialism “the Boss isn’t happy” as much as I do – make sure your team knows that. Don’t let your actions make the organization a command driven, emotional rollercoaster. Communicate that you will do everything you can to ensure your actions don’t cause this, and that you expect them to:
- Not use this phrase or other emotion based connections (e.g. “the Boss is angry,” “the Boss is having a bad day,” etc.)
- Let you know when your emotions are having an impact on the organization.
“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” -Winston Churchill
Incorporate feedback mechanisms to ensure your team understands and can communicate these expectations back to you. One means you can use to center your team on your shared values is to display them at the beginning and end of every briefing. Focus on one each meeting, read the definition, communicate a recently observed event where the organization displayed or failed to display this value, and then ask for feedback from the team. Vision leaks – you need to continue to communicate, communicate, and communicate. You cannot over communicate.
Whatever your expectations, clearly communicate them through your mission, intent, vision, and shared values. You can’t just print these on paper or posters. You need to pour them into those you lead.
Lead by “Wandering Around”
Never miss an opportunity to interact with individuals in your organization. Just because you can’t talk to everyone, doesn’t mean you can’t talk to someone. And, sometimes those individual interactions make more of an impact than speaking to the team en masse. The executives of Hewlett-Packard coined the phrase, “Leadership by wandering around” in the 1970s. Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman referenced it in their 1982 book In Search of Excellence. It is the practice of wandering without a set agenda, but with a very clear purpose
Commanders do a version of this with a “Battlefield Circulation”, but that is a few degrees off target. A Battlefield Circulation often has a very set agenda and comes with warning to the organization of focus. Organizations tend to prepare or put their best foot forward when they know you are coming. It isn’t with mal-intent, but the act dilutes the value of the observation.
When a leader “wanders”, she sees the organization in its steady state. This provides a snapshot or picture of reality that is crucial to gaining perspective. It also allows the Commander the opportunity to engage members of the team who would otherwise not have an audience or voice.
Check out Josh Bowen’s thoughts on this topic, featured in 3×5 Leadership, here.
The Army, while swinging toward servant leadership or transformational leadership, still has some remnants of entitlement culture (e.g. “Rank hath its privilege”). We still hear certain positions referred to as “king-makers” because they are sure to “get you promoted”. That is a natural side effect of having people, ever imperfect, at our organization’s core. However, I believe the majority are great leaders who care about their subordinates and the mission above their own advancement, and do not buy into their own self-importance. Be aware of your team and their actions, because they are representing you, your command, and the larger organization on a daily basis.