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.
Sadly, it seems like this used to be much more the case than it is now. The belligerence, doubling down, and unwillingness to apologize or concede (particularly from the political class) is troublesome. I hope it doesn't spill over into business leadership.
Interesting way to use this in today's Field Note. I'm familiar with the below in which Randall talked about being unable to unring the bell at orgs where the CEO/c-suite take strong stances on social and political issues.
"From an Admired Leadership perspective:
The superseding value should be to celebrate a diversity of viewpoints.
People should be free to live their personal beliefs and pursue those issues as their conscience guides but at the same time to respect other voices by not using the organization for social debate. That may mean that your org may not be right for some employees because it isn’t activist enough for them. That’s ok.
If you take a strong position, you create a chilling effect that creates disrespect within the organization and team. You can’t “unring” the bell of disrespect within a team. You will immediately begin to feel differently about individuals that hold a different view than you and that will undermine relationships. The chilling effect is real and must be avoided.
Feel free to discuss these and other issues openly with your colleagues but do so in private conversations without any endorsement of the organization."