Several years ago, I decided I wasn’t challenged enough with writing and editing in the technical arena and wanted to move my career into Communications. I was given the opportunity, landed in a pretty interesting organization, and, a year later, was trying to figure out how I could get back to the editing.
The organization I was in had a fantastic mission and really low morale. The primary reason for the lack of morale was the guy who was in charge of the joint: a grumpy little gnome of a man who, in every interaction, demonstrated that he didn’t give a crap about the people who worked for him. He didn’t care about their work/life balance, he didn’t care about their ambitions, he didn’t share information, there was no transparency, he couldn’t be trusted not to throw people under the bus, he had the opinion of the last person who talked to him, and he didn’t care about fairness. Everything was to point in the general direction of his glory. But I was supposed to create internal communications that gave the appearance of transparency. I was supposed to make him look like he gave a shit.
And I failed when it came to addressing morale in the organization. I budged it not one precious millimeter. I quickly realized that you can’t “communicate” your way out of a disconnect between who the leadership is and what they want to appear. No newsletter, no recognition program, no social media platform is going to make people feel heard if the boss isn’t listening. People aren’t dumb.
If you want the portrait of a leader, look at the organization. Is it full of backstabbers? Information-hoarders? Angry people? Liars? Bullshitters? Glory-hoarders? If there’s no trust, it is because the leadership fosters distrust. Doesn’t matter what falls out of your mouth: if who you are isn’t aligned with what you say, it’s a no-go. Further, it makes the situation worse because the language stops meaning what it is supposed to mean.
Again and again. Another former employer was up his own arse about how morally irreproachable he was. “We do the right thing in my company,” he would say. And maybe there was some moral behavior to be had. But there was no high-ground, no true confidence. He’d say “we need truth-tellers here,” but only so long as the truth didn’t challenge him. So what did he have? A written-down company culture that in no way aligned with the way things were. A lot of self-congratulation. Not a whole lot of substance.
Whaddya know, I just found an old Harvard Business Review talking about “Primal Leadership.” The did studies and apparently I was on to something that someone spent a lot of money studying just by observing the people around me:
The leader’s mood and behaviors drive the moods and behaviors of everyone else.
I got out of Communications. Leaders who do what they say are way too few and far between and I’m not into setting myself up for failure. You just can’t talk your way out of being an asshole if that’s what you are.