Monday, December 19, 2011

Are you casting a shadow like Washington or…?

Headlines bombard us about executive pay, the tax code, and growing disparity between rich and poor. Pundits pontificate "They should or shouldn't do this." We react based on our own point of view.

But what about a leader stepping forward and taking action?

I was chatting with such a leader the other day. (I can’t reveal his name or other identifying particulars because they are not public yet.) He’s the top official of a small city suffering like so many others in this economy. Revenues are down, demands from residents and businesses are still high, and layoffs and service suspension have become the norm.

Of course he’s fighting back looking at ways to keep the city viable, growing, and innovative. He is trying to keep morale high for city workers who must meet demands, enforce codes, and keep the city running.

But this guy is going the extra mile at a time when it’s out of fashion. He floated the idea among the department heads and managers about taking voluntary furloughs…days off without pay. No big fanfare, no announcements in the local papers, no breathless reports on the local news. Just an idea. "Let's make a small sacrifice to help our city through a tough time."

He was the first to sign up to ease the city’s budget woes. He knows the pain people are suffering because in another recession he was laid off from his city job. So far a couple of department heads have also stepped forward and more are expected to do so as word spreads.

Now the cynics among us are saying, “of course it’s no big deal. He can afford it and will probably take a nice vacation. It’s just symbolic.”

I disagree…not just because I know the guy and he’s sincere. He’s taking a concrete action and setting an example for the rest of the city leaders. He’s walking the talk…something people say is important.

The official is employing "Shadow of the Leader."

Shadow of the Leader is an observation that people in authority through their likes, dislikes, treatment of others, language, personal preferences, beliefs, and values shape the culture of the organization. Employees watch the leader for clues about what’s important.

Although the idea is not new, the first systematic study was done by Larry Senn in his 1970 doctoral dissertation. (In full disclosure, Shadow of the Leader was the subject of my own dissertation in 1979.)

Creating a culture is one of the most important functions of a leader. Whatever example he or she sets will determine whether the organization achieves its stated vision, mission, values, and goals or not. We take our lead from what the leader does, NOT what he or she says…human nature.

In his first inaugural address George Washington stated he would serve without a salary. Congress in its wisdom convinced him to take the salary based on the republican principle that an official who was not getting compensation would be prone to corruption.

It was Washington’s desire to stay above the fray, always display character and rectitude, and set an example for others to follow. He knew his every move would be watched and used to set a precedent for future presidents.

If we are serious about our visions, missions, values, and goals and about leading our organizations, whether a tiny team or a vast country, understanding the power of our shadow and stepping up to take the next right action is absolutely necessary.

So hats off to the city official and those who extend his shadow to help their city in a time of need.

What shadow are you casting?
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(c) Rebecca Staton-Reinstein,  Ph.D., President, Advantage Leadership, Inc.