Leaders’ behaviour sends powerful signals – Ian Muir


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One of the advantages of spending over thirty years in corporate life is perspective. That’s the perspective of seeing leaders in action across many countries around the world. It’s also the perspective that comes from observing different organisations. And hopefully, as a leader oneself, that perspective should be put to good use.

Something that struck me time and again is that people tend to behave like their managers and their leaders. But not every manager or leader fully understands just how influential their behaviour is. I met a company chairman who said that once a CEO has been running a company or a subsidiary for a few years, the culture of the organisation tends to copy the personal style of that CEO. If true, that has profound implications for leaders’ behaviour and their understanding of the powerful signals they send.

Of course, not everyone will blindly copy their manager in a robotic sense. Thank goodness for diversity. Thank goodness also for the combination of challenge and support: challenge to get issues on the table and support to encourage constructive debate rather than just sniping. Diversity is vital to stop “groupthink” – that tendency to believe you are right, even when there is evidence to the contrary. Groupthink has played a part in the downfall of many leaders, who became convinced of their view, rejecting all others. Maybe this played some part in the surprising (for some) outcome of the UK general election?

Managers and leaders must listen to a broad range of views and follow up when something is not quite right. Some people call this applying common sense or even a sixth sense. But as a leader, once you know something is wrong, the one thing you can’t do – is nothing. That is because there are people in organisations with poor ethics. My observation is that the leaders who gain the greatest respect are those who deal promptly, fairly and effectively with ethical lapses.

Sadly, all organisations are likely to have some people who are dishonest – people I call “bad apples.” They also have people who act without thinking. This might be through inadequate training or simply because they never thought-through the consequences of their actions. I call them “foolish apples.” And lastly there are people who will give-in or succumb to temptation or pressure. I call them “pressured apples.” It is important for organisations to recognise these different types of ethical risk and to take action to mitigate them.

And that brings me back to the behavioural signals of leadership.  A leader once said to me that for the right reasons, “one sacking is worth a thousand memos.” He wasn’t Genghis Khan; he was simply making the point that people who do really bad things can’t remain. Employees see what happens – and there is nothing more demotivating that seeing others get away with improper performance, capability or conduct. Your people aren’t stupid – they know who the passengers are!

Where leaders overtly focus on safety, or straight talking, or effective governance, they are more likely to create organisations filled with people who will do what’s right – even when they know no one is looking.

In my experience, that helps build a virtuous circle of motivated people and inspiring leaders. Which brings me back again to the nature of leadership and the behavioural signals leaders send. It has been argued that great companies don’t hire skilled people and motivate them. They hire already motivated people and inspire them. Some would say people are either motivated or they aren’t. Unless you give motivated people something to believe in, something bigger than their job to work towards, they will motivate themselves to find a new job and you’ll be stuck with whoever’s left. Now, there’s some inspiration for leadership.

Ian Muir

Author of ‘The Tone From the Top’ – 978-1-4724-5417-1



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