Successful people operate in two modes: professional and relaxed. But a leader needs to be a consistent role model and assume people are always paying attention.
In professional mode, we’re at our image-conscious best. We pay attention to what we say, how we look, whom we must serve, and whom we can’t afford to displease. In relaxed mode, we’re less guarded. It’s the difference between who we are on weekends and weekdays.
Our mojo is at risk when we shift from professional to relaxed mode without making everyone aware of the shift; we may not be aware of it ourselves.
I once worked with a senior executive at a large retail chain who had this problem. She had all the attributes to succeed the current CEO: dedicated, hardworking, got results, looked professional, acted like a leader and cared about people. She was the total package except for one thing: Get a couple of drinks under her belt and she would start blasting funny, cynical remarks.
It wasn’t the alcohol, I concluded, it was the situation. Nor was it an occasional lapse — there was a pattern. She would be the perfect executive all day, but after most of the employees had gone home, she’d call her friends into her office and let down her guard. There’s nothing wrong with cynicism — we’d be nuts if we didn’t harbor some dark, funny thoughts about other people — but most of us keep them to ourselves, or express them with extreme selectivity.
It was a sign of the CEO’s faith in this executive that when he found out about this behavior he hired me to help this person change. The ?rst thing I told the executive was “This is really stupid behavior. Please don’t do this again.”
She re?ected upon what she had done and soberly agreed. Then we went through what triggered this behavior, so she could avoid it in the future. We identi?ed a contrast in her life between relaxed and professional mode: She’d get in a room with her loyal subordinates after work and assume anything she said was “just between us friends.” It never occurred to her that trust could be broken, that one of her buddies would tell a co-worker. Even worse, when the stories were retold, the sarcastic humor was sometimes lost, and she just came off as angry, not funny.
In professional mode, she almost never made mistakes. In relaxed mode, her judgment weakened. When you’re in a leadership position, everything you say is gossip fodder. Nor did she realize she was giving approval to her employees to mimic her behavior.