How to Lead Like a Pig

Posted 10.06.2010

Leaderpig If you’ve been looking for a great case study of how quickly leadership can change the culture of an organization, look no further than David Carr’s front page piece in today’s New York Times. In it, he describes  how real estate investor Sam Zell and his minions destroyed the culture of the Chicago Tribune and other great newspapers in its holding company. To say that these people led like pigs is to do a disservice to pigs.

After he used the Trib’s own retirement plan as leverage to buy the company, Zell brought in as CEO a former morning zoo style radio shock jock named Randy Michaels. It wasn’t long after Michaels arrival that he was impressing his co-workers by offering $100 to a waitress at the nearby InterContinental Hotel to expose herself. In a truly innovative move, the new management team rewrote the employee handbook giving the green light to profanity and dirty jokes “because a loose, fun, nonlinear atmosphere is important to the creative process. This should be understood, should not be a surprise and not considered harassment.”

So, with the new handbook in place, it wasn’t long before Michaels and another senior exec were heard on an open balcony loudly rating the hotness of various female employees. Company sponsored poker smokers, illicit liaisons and other forms of loose, fun, nonlinear behavior ensued. With the newspaper industry being what it is, the employees of the Trib had some choices to make. They could leave and hope to find another job in their profession, they could stay and grit it out or they could stay and try to improve their career prospects by joining in on the Animal House leadership style. Different people chose different options. The Tribune Company was bankrupt a year after Zell bought it and, almost two years later, the case is still in bankruptcy court.

A coaching friend of mine likes to say that presence begets presence. The presence of the leader influences the presence of those being led. This dynamic can play out for good or for bad. The example from the Trib is extreme in that it’s rare for management to codify bad behavior as official company policy.  Still, it’s really easy for leaders with titles to underestimate the impact of their leadership footprint. In my book, The Next Level, I write about the need for leaders to pick up a big footprint view of their role and let go of the small footprint view. Here are some big footprint behaviors that experience shows leaders need to monitor:

Act Like an Ambassador: 
One senior executive I interviewed told me he thinks of himself as an ambassador of the culture of his company and works hard to behave accordingly. As long as your cultural ambitions are not to be the next Delta House that seems like a good guide for behaving intentionally as a leader.

Check Your Sense of Humor:  That hair trigger, quick witted, maybe sharp tongued sense of humor that gets you a lot of laughs when you’re out with your friends doesn’t play so well when you’re the senior leader. Context is everything in communications and the context when you’re the senior leader is you have the power to change people’s lives. That tends to change the way they’ll hear your jokes. Put yourself in their shoes before popping off a zinger.

Think Before You Speak:   It bears repeating. As a senior leader you have the power to change people’s lives. They’ll take that seriously and, therefore, will take what you say seriously. Think it through and be really intentional about the result you’re trying to create with your words. The days of you being able to just think out loud are over. People will take what you say and run with it. Make sure they’re running in the direction you want them to.

Act Like You’re Being Watched:  Because you are. For good or for bad, people will take all sorts of cues from the way you carry, present and handle yourself. That’s both during work hours and off hours. The way you behave and treat others will have a big impact on the way people in your organization behave and treat others.

What about you? What are the best and worst examples you’ve ever seen of a leader managing the impact of his or her footprint? What other advice do you have for leaders who actually care about the impact they make with their leadership footprint?