Sunday, May 9, 2010

Coaching Lessons: When Everyone Is Watching You

When you imagine that everyone is watching you your first thought is not very positive. It sounds like you are being exposed, are being spied on, or are being subjected to intrusive surveillance. When Jeffrey Zaslow wrote that we live in an age of humiliation, he was describing a culture where social media have made offered up far too much of our private lives for public consumption. Sometimes, without our consent. The upshot is that we are living in a culture of shamelessness. Link here.

Someone once said that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, so it seems just that young people, who led the way in exposing too much of themselves, would be starting to discover the value of privacy. As the New York Times describes this morning, the "tell-all generation" is learning to keep personal details out of the public square. One can only wish it is a burgeoning trend. Link here.

(I will mention in passing that I prefer the label, "tell-all generation" to gen-X, gen-Y, and millennials.)

Today I want to take this notion of being exposed and place it in a very different context. Writing about reputation management-- always a great subject-- Prof. Daniel Ames of the Columbia Business School said this about the role of executive: "For leaders and managers, who are almost always highly visible and under scrutiny, even a small and seemingly unforgivable slip up can be judged harshly. It reinforces the need for managers to be mindful that they are always on stage." Link here.

This sounds a bit strange. By definition, leadership involves being watched by large numbers of people. Leaders are constantly being scrutinized, but they are also being emulated. Once you become a leader you will become a role model, and once that happens, your good character traits, to say nothing of a few of your quirks and foibles, will be imitated, for better or for worse.

Wanting to be a leader involves believing that you can be a very good role model. You believe that if people emulated your behavior they would be bettering themselves.

As young people discover that it is best to keep their private lives private, one must hope that they do not conclude that they do not want to be subject to any scrutiny at all, that they never want to be looked at or looked up to.

This view of leadership implies that a leader must exercise rigorous discipline. A leader is identified entirely by his role. Since his private thoughts, feelings, and experiences are irrelevant to his leadership function-- in fact, were they known they would detract from it-- he is obligated to keep them to himself.

As Ames pointed out in his article, it does not take a lot for a leader to compromise his good name and reputation. A slip-up, a gaffe, a momentary lapse in decorum can make it vastly more difficult for a leader to establish his credibility.

How has the therapy culture viewed leadership? Have its values and precepts prepared you to assume the role of leader?

In large part, this culture has convinced people that discipline involves repression, and that you can only actualize your true self when you let it all hang out. Anyone who buys this value system will have forfeited his leadership potential. And he will also have gone a long way to forfeiting the respect of his friends and family.

The therapy culture did everyone a disservice when it undermined the value of discipline in favor of the values of spontaneity and creativity.

(A side comment on discipline. A recent study of 8th graders found that self-discipline is a better predictor of academic success than IQ. Via Simoleon Sense; link here. Obviously a child with a very high IQ and low discipline will still outperform a child with low IQ and high discipline, but the study does explain why some very promising children do not perform well while other students who do not score as high on IQ tests do better than expected. The difference is the level of discipline, and the adherence to a strict work ethic.)

Leadership involves being in uniform. But it also means that you can become your role. If a general's uniform is stained, if his tie is untied, if his cap is on backwards... then everyone who sees him will think that something is wrong. They are going to direct their concern to his person and away from his leadership. When your troops start asking what's the matter they are going to be less motivated to follow your orders, no matter how good they are.

When your appearance and decorum express a lack of discipline they are telling your troops that you might be making decisions based on your personal needs, and not the needs of your soldiers. Even if your decision is for the best of the group, your personal appearance will say otherwise.

It is not enough for a general to present a proper public appearance. He must be thoroughly comfortable in his uniform. He must look at though he is wearing the uniform, not that the uniform is wearing him. His public face must be who he is; it must not seem to be a mask.

In a culture of shamelessness people obey different values, those that are most fitted to celebrity. Whether or not therapists know it, when they encourage people to express their feelings openly and honestly, to become part of a tell-all generation, they are encouraging them to become like celebrities.

The difference between a general and a celebrity is that a celebrity does not get noticed in the tabloids unless he exposes some intimate or private matter. Celebrities draw attention to themselves by making inappropriate or idiotic remarks, or by showing more of their anatomy than discretion allows. They attract the eye of the paparazzi because they might at any moment be caught off guard. And since celebrities are notoriously undisciplined, both on and off screen, they are very likely to oblige.

What then does it take to be a leader?

First, a willingness to be in the public eye... even if the public is your staff.

Second, the discipline to maintain decorum at all times in all public situations.

Third, the knowledge that good conduct will promote social harmony.

Fourth, the confidence to be fully comfortable in a public role, to identify with that role.

Fifth, the conviction that the public role is not a mask but is who you really are.

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