How to Remember You’re a Manager and Not Royalty

Posted 07.17.2012

Last week, former FBI director Louis Freeh released the results of his investigation into what top officials of Penn State University including its then president Graham Spanier and the late head football coach Joe Paterno knew about the child sexual abuse perpetrated by convicted felon Jerry Sandusky. Sadly, the report confirmed everyone’s worst fears. Everybody knew it and worked together to sweep it under the rug.

The indictment of leadership in this case has been widely and rightly discussed. It’s a terrible case of people in positions of power deciding to protect themselves and the organization at the expense of the powerless. It’s hard to fathom and, therefore, we look for clues that help us understand the thinking of the people at fault.

The New York Times offered such a clue a few days ago when it ran an article that explained how, as the Sandusky scandal began to come to public light last year, that Paterno was negotiating a salary package that would have paid him $3 million to retire at the end of the 2011 season, forgive a $350,000 loan the University made to him and guarantee his family use of Penn State’s private plane and a luxury skybox at the football stadium for the next 25 years.

My first thought when I read that was that Paterno must have thought he and his family were royalty. Practically speaking, I guess they were. Joe Paterno was not, of course, the only leader in history to allow power, influence and adulation to affect his judgment. As the GSA conference scandal from earlier this year demonstrates, you can find examples of power corrupting leaders in just about any domain.

We see enough aberrant behavior on the part of people in leadership positions that it seems worth asking the question – how do you stay clear about the fact that you’re a manager and not royalty? Here are three ideas:

1. Get Out There: It’s easy to operate in a bubble when you’re the designated leader. It can envelop you before you know it. People tell you what they think you want to hear. The seas sort of magically part when you show up. It’s easy to start thinking you’re all that and a bag of chips. You can pop the bubble by getting out there on a regular and frequent basis with the people who are doing the work. Go without your entourage or talking points. Just get out there, talk with people and pitch in where you can without getting in the way.

2. Serve Others: Incorporate a routine of service in your life that puts you in direct contact with the less fortunate. You’ll find that they’re not that much different than you or, more to the point, you’re not that different than them. The truth for any of us is that with a left turn instead of a right turn at some unrecognized critical point in our lives, we could be the one needing the help instead of giving it. Facing that truth on a regular basis can help you keep your place in the world in some kind of perspective.

3. Get Someone to Tell You the Truth: Find someone you trust to tell you the truth and call you out when you start thinking you’re entitled to special treatment. In my house, if you hear, “Do you know who I am?” from a family member it’s a signal that you’re starting to become insufferable. It’s good to have people in your life who bring you back to earth by speaking the truth in love.

What about you? How do you keep yourself grounded about your role as a leader?