Leaders undermine their own authority when words and actions are at odds

Employees can’t help but grumble when the boss claims to value work-life balance, but then works well into the evening each day, firing off late-night emails with the expectation they be answered by morning.

Their morale plummets and they start updating their resumes when managers insist on top-notch results from everyone – everyone except the managers themselves, that is.

Face it. Those you lead are watching, especially the younger people who may look to you as a role model. As a leader, it’s important that when you set high standards for others, you make sure you meet those standards yourself.

I learned that lesson in the military even before I was promoted into leadership positions. As one of the first women to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy and the Naval Test Pilot School, I understood that my every move was going to be watched to see how I would measure up. Whether I liked it or not, my actions and behavior would speak volumes to both the women and men around me.

So how was I going to handle the scrutiny? I decided that on the outside I would always be polished. I tailored my uniforms, kept my shoes shined and my hair pulled back, and always stayed in good physical shape. On the inside, I would continue to develop my drive to become the kind of aviator with whom others wanted to fly. This didn’t mean I had to be perfect. I would make mistakes, as we all do. How I handled those mistakes was where I would be watched even more closely, and that was another way for me to shine and serve as an example.

All of that translates directly to leadership in any field, whether business, the military or some other area of life. The adage “actions speak louder than words” remains as true as ever because the people on a leader’s team are quick to notice when what the leader says and what the leader does don’t mesh.

This isn’t to say that every inconsistency creates problems and that one slip on your part will send your credibility crashing. It comes down to how often it happens and what people regard as your underlying values system.

According to a study published in the journal Research in Organizational Behavior, people generally accept a momentary lapse, but are less forgiving when the misalignment between what their leaders say and what they do starts to come off as hypocrisy, the researchers found.

To avoid even a whiff of that hypocrisy, leaders should make their values clear to those they lead, and then demonstrate behaviors consistent with those values. I remember doing just that when I took a major command post in the military.

I shared my values with my team members and challenged them to hold me accountable to those values. I showed them daily that my values of teamwork, truth, honesty and respect could become the values of the organization.

My team accepted my challenge and completely embraced our mission. My values became the values of the organization. The quality of their work multiplied, and most importantly, their work lives were enriched by becoming a single team. It was perhaps the proudest moment of my career.

But none of it likely would have happened if those under my command detected that I didn’t live up to the values I expected of them.

Today, I advise all leaders to write down their concepts of leadership and to share them within their organizations.

Even as they set high standards and strive to live up to those standards as a model for others, leaders also need to be cognizant of the fact they don’t know everything. And it’s fine to allow the team to realize that, too.

As your leadership responsibilities grow and become increasingly more complex, become comfortable being more of a generalist. Hold close to your values and rely on those who work for you as the specialists, then lead them in the direction you want them to go.

About Barbara Bell
Barbara Bell (www.captainbarbarabell.com), author of  “Flight Lessons: Navigating Through Life’s Turbulence and Learning to Fly High,” was one of the first women to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy and the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School. Now she works to empower the next generation of female leaders. In 1992, Bell and fellow aviators went to Capitol Hill to help successfully repeal the combat exclusions laws, opening up combat aircraft and ships to women in the military. Bell holds a B.S. in systems engineering from the United States Naval Academy, an M.S. in astronautical engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School, an M.A. in theology from Marylhurst University and a doctorate in education from Vanderbilt University.