Leadership Shadows and a Teachable Moment . . .


“Mirror, Mirror on the wall, who casts the biggest shadow of all?”  ~apologies to Maleficent, the Wicked Queen in Snow White

Several years ago I was invited to attend an end of year conference for one of my large clients. Imagine the ballroom at an upscale Florida convention center filled with happy employees who had just blown the doors off their revenue targets. Everyone was in a great mood and light-hearted laughter could be heard everywhere the attendees went.

On the final evening it was time for the closing dinner, award celebrations and a special guest entertainer. Sparing no expense, the event organizers had reached out to Las Vegas for a well-known stand up comic who was guaranteed to have them rolling in the aisles – just right for a year-end celebration.

After a great meal came the awards ceremony with recognition based on the six core values of the company.  The Values Awards were given out by the CEO, who took the opportunity to stress the importance of the company values. “Our values help us produce excellent business results such as we’ve delivered this year,” he said, “but are also the foundation of our everyday behavior.”

Then it was time for the festivities. The lights dimmed and out walked the guest entertainer to thundering applause. It was obvious he had been briefed on the company and their stellar results since he started out with a few light-hearted comments about the products and some of the senior managers. It started out great. But as he launched into his routine, a wave of unease rippled through the crowd. The jokes were funny, but more suited for a “boy’s night out” than a company meeting. And with each passing joke the tension grew. People began to look around, wondering if it was okay to laugh – they were crudely funny, but….

After a few more jokes the CEO stood up from the head table and walked up on stage. He motioned to the stunned entertainer for the microphone. By this time not a fork was moving. He turned to the shocked comedian and said, “Thank you. You’re services will no longer be required. You will receive your fee, but your act is finished.”

He then turned to the audience. “I apologize to you all. This does not fit with our values of respect for all people. I am sorry. I take full responsibility. I firmly believe our values are more important than anything else – they are what make us a great company. How about we enjoy each other’s company for the rest of the evening? That’s the best entertainment I can think of.”  He walked off the stage to a standing ovation.

Those in leadership positions cast shadows far and wide across their company. In this case a simple act had a greater impact on the company culture than any speech, any memo, any poster on values or any training course. Because of the CEO’s actions everyone in that company realized the values were important.

This post isn’t so much about values as it is about the impact of leadership behavior. Whether you like it or not, YOU cast a powerful shadow in your organization through your everyday actions. And actions speak louder than words! People watch the behavior of their leaders for clues as to what is accepted and what is not. When a leader says one thing and then behaves differently employees quickly figure out the real story. One of the major obligations of leadership is integrity between words and deeds!

When you come into the building and head straight for your office, head down, not interacting with anyone, that’s the story that gets talked about in the canteen and the pubs, not the speech you gave on employee engagement and openness.

And an even more powerful shadow is cast by the senior team and how they interact with each other. If you want teamwork as a core value across the organization, it better happen at the top or you won’t achieve it anywhere in the company, even with the best teambuilding workshops.

If two senior executives don’t support each other, you can forget about cross departmental support and cooperation. It was this type of poor leadership shadow that led to the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, and countless other examples of sub-optimal performance inside organizations.

Want to learn more about leadership shadows in your company? Listen to the company jokes; look at the cartoons and pictures posted in cubicles; ask your suppliers; ask your customers; ask middle management.  Look in the cultural mirror of your company – it’s all there if you are willing to see it.

Tight Lines . . .

John R Childress


About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at john@johnrchildress.com or john.childress@theprincipiagroup.com
This entry was posted in consulting, corporate culture, Human Psychology, John R Childress, John's views on the world, leadership, Organization Behavior, Psychology, the business of business and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Leadership Shadows and a Teachable Moment . . .

  1. That’s a powerful story and powerful lesson!


  2. Agree with Malcolm. Powerful story John. Thanks for sharing.


  3. Steve Borek says:

    The leader is always being watched.
    Leadership starts with credibility.


  4. Pingback: Leadership, Friction and Culture Change | John R Childress . . . Rethinking

  5. Pingback: Culture Change is not an initiative . . . | John R Childress . . . Rethinking

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