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Leaders Can't Afford to Have an 'Off-Day'

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A few weeks ago a single Facebook post sparked a media firestorm about the character of the then Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. A makeup artist, who'd been commissioned to "paint the face" of the Prime Minister prior to a televised debate, took to Facebook to express how badly she felt she'd been treated by him and how he was the exact opposite of the opposition leader (now the Prime Minister), Tony Abbott, who'd been "very appreciative", "absolutely lovely" and acknowledged that she had a job to do. The mainstream media caught wind of the comment and it quickly became headline news. Soon after, the makeup artist deleted the post from her profile.

Not exactly what Mr. Rudd or his team wanted in the midst of a tight election campaign.

Irrespective of whether the criticism was warranted, blown out of proportion or not, to me this situation emphasises that leadership, undoubtedly, is a 24/7 job. Respect, trustworthiness, authenticity: there's a common expectation for leaders to comport themselves with these qualities -- at all times.

And why not? No one wants to follow someone who isn't the genuine article: someone who switches on decency in time for the cameras or audience, only to switch it off again when the cameras are off and people are looking the other way. If you promote yourself as a good person, but then get called out for behaving in a contrary way, you're not as advertised -- people lose faith.

Sure, leaders are human too. People have "off-days", sometimes not operating at their best for whatever reason, but the level of expectation for a leader to be consistent, or at least authentic, in their behavior and treatment of others is much greater. Their personal actions can have an indelibly wide-reaching impact on perhaps hundreds, thousands or millions of people. It's been like this since day one, but now more than ever, the authenticity of a leader's character is being challenged, scrutinized and it's occurring in the public domain.

People called out by social media and smart phones with good quality cameras around every corner, in every venue, can rail against the trend -- but I am a huge fan. Social media, fast becoming the media, is an agent for authenticity. It has breached "behind closed doors" behavior and demands authentic leadership. Should a leader falter -- drop their guard to reveal a candid glimpse of themselves which is contrary to their public persona -- the majority of the time nowadays there will be a keen observer only too willing to share their observations and smart phone snaps with a ready audience. Be wary the leader who isn't all they say they are.

What's interesting is how opinions expressed via social media can influence front page news, as was the case with Mr. Rudd. According to Oriella's Global Digital Journalism Study 2013 -- which surveyed more than 500 journalists from various countries -- 51 percent of journalists worldwide use the likes of Twitter and Facebook to gather news stories. This number is likely to increase as the next generation of journalists comes through. So, if a leader has an "off-day," it could result in many more "off-days" as they face a barrage of negative press served up by these social platforms.

So what's a leader to do?

As the chief executive of a business with offices around the globe, these are my thoughts. When I reached senior-level positions I quickly realized that my behavior had a significant impact on people. Morale, culture, productivity: what I said, how I behaved and interacted with staff at all levels had a huge baring on all these things. I really couldn't afford to have an "off-day" as it could be detrimental to the business and the people I am responsible for. So my belief is this: one of the most important qualities of a genuine leader -- no matter whether they're in business, politics, sport or the community -- is unwavering self-awareness, a consciousness of what sort of impact you're having on people.

And this way of thinking needs to be consistent. It cannot be periodic, just something you consider when engaging those you may deem important. For instance, in business, only considering the effects of your behavior on senior management teams, or the board of directors, is not sufficient. Understanding your impact on everyone you deal with -- middle management, facilities staff -- is essential in building and maintaining a credible, authentic reputation. Consequentially, the chances of being slammed on social media should be reduced too.

Like many, I've learned from my mistakes and, with the benefit of hindsight, can recount times when a different approach to a situation or individual may have led to different results. Self-awareness and being true to who I am is now a permanent mindset. My autopilot.

Of course, leader character assassinations via social media are not always justified, but they are always damaging. Consistent self-awareness is a leader's best repellent.