In this excerpt from his upcoming book, Leadership Two Words at a Time: Simple Truths for Leading Complicated People Bill explores the power of influence that leaders hold. Often this influence is simply those around you mimicking your attitudes and behaviors. As a leader, you must be conscious of, and intentional with, the power of your role modeling to influence the behavior of others.
Years ago, I facilitated an offsite meeting with the president of a bank and his senior executive team about whether to modify the bank’s dress code. You may find this hard to believe, but there was a time when many professions required employees to dress in their ‘Sunday best’ – suit and tie for men, below-the-knees dresses, and pantyhose for women.
Then, in the early 1990s, some businesses decided to get a little less stuffy…one day a week. On ‘Casual Fridays’ men could put on their khakis and a polo shirt and ditch their sportscoats, and women could wear open-toed shoes and higher-hemmed dresses or pants. Some leaders struggled with the transition, fearing that dressing casually would send an impression that the business was lowering its standards.
During the offsite, the president asked to hear the perspectives of his senior executive team. It was quiet at first– as if people didn’t feel safe sharing their true perspectives. Finally, someone spoke up, saying, “Shouldn’t we dress like our customers? Dressing like we do may be sending the impression that we think we’re ‘above’ them, making them feel like we’re looking down at them.”
The first comment inspired another person to speak up, “I agree, dressing above them is condescending. Plus, many of our customers come during their lunch break from work, and from what I see, many of their businesses are starting to dress more casually. Shouldn’t we follow their lead?” Other execs expressed similar thoughts, and as they did, nearly every head in the room was shaking ‘yes’ – except one: the president’s.
Before the president weighed in with his opinion, it was clear that his team uniformly supported moving to a Casual Friday dress code. Then, with a small cough of annoyance, the president spoke. “What you all said surprises and disappoints me. Our bank has long prided itself on professionalism, and much of that is projected by what we wear. If there is any business where customers need to feel confident that their investments are being used wisely and maturely, it’s ours. We have a fiduciary responsibility to care for people’s money! We must project conservatism and intelligence and conformity. Our customers need to know that every one of us will give them the same exact standard of professionalism and that we’ll manage their money just as they would. How we dress is the first impression they get of our standards of professionalism.”
The Power of Influence
What happened next taught me the power of leadership role modeling and how easily people will contort their own preferences and opinions to get in alignment with a leader – even when they don’t truly agree with him or her. People started rewinding what they had said before the president had spoken. One person said, “Well when you put it that way, I can see how dressing casually, even one day a week, would send the wrong impression.” Another chimed in, “You know, you’re right. I hadn’t considered that we wouldn’t be perceived as good stewards of people’s money if our dress suggested that we were ‘casual’ or ‘informal.’”
One by one, everyone backed down and found a way to conform with the leader’s opinion. The only person who remained unchanged was the leader himself. It was clear that he wasn’t genuinely interested in hearing people’s perspectives, he just wanted to voice his own preferences and make others yield to it. It was as comical as it was tragic.
The story of how people get in line with their leader’s viewpoints plays out every day throughout the world. Though the situations vary, the overarching theme is the same: groups of individuals come to conform to their leader’s preferences. Taking their cues from the leader, some will even adopt the leader’s behavioral and communication styles. It’s a form of twisted loyalty, mimicry, and sometimes subjugation. Consciously, and more often unconsciously, people will sacrifice their own values and individuality to clone themselves after the leader. Though often thought of negatively, leaders have the power to positively influence others through their behaviors as well.
For powerful tips on how to model principles for your team, buy Bill’s new book here.