You Can’t Unring the Bell
It has happened to celebrities, news anchors, reality stars, and politicians. No one is immune. Say, do, or tweet something highly offensive in the wrong moment and get walked to the door.
Leaders are held to an even higher standard. Once a leader says, does, or writes something decidedly offensive, the career curtains come crashing down. Leaders who let their guard down and speak their minds without thought of how they might be interpreted court major trouble. They will eventually find themselves on the outside looking in.
It is worth committing to memory that every leader, no matter how important, is only one utterance away from ending their career. Once the insensitive remark or action is shared, no one can unring the bell. No apology can put the toothpaste back into the tube.
When leaders operate largely from ego, thinking they are infallible in the moment, they can say the craziest things. Some actions smack of ego. Other comments simply don’t land well or seem out of touch. When they feel they own the room and personal vanity takes center stage, leaders can say, do, or write things they shouldn’t. The audience's silence followed by disbelief should be a strong clue. Yet, somehow when a leader’s ego owns the day, they are often surprised by the reaction.
Sometimes, the offensive remark is couched as humor. In an attempt to regale an audience, a leader might share a joke or jocular comment that falls flat on its face. Because of the leadership context, the wisecrack is interpreted literally and becomes a source of extreme discomfort for others.
Leaders don’t attempt extreme humor unless they are hugely comfortable with themselves and think they are above being misinterpreted. A foolhardy premise in nearly all situations.
Once displayed to the world, a highly offensive utterance or action has no place to go but to be repeated by others as evidence of a leader gone mad. For the leader, no retreat is possible. Full surrender imposed by others means extreme admonishment, termination, or the end of a glorious career.
Reminding ourselves that whenever we speak as leaders we are only one utterance or action away from ending our reign helps to keep our egos in check. This doesn’t mean leaders have to play it safe. It does mean leaders can never forget that what they say matters to others and will always be interpreted to reflect who they really are.
So before you take any leadership stage, please check your ego at the door. Your career depends on it.