Home > The Monday Musings Column > with feet of clay it pays to tread carefully

with feet of clay it pays to tread carefully

I started this a couple of weeks ago, but didn’t quite finish and wrote a different Musing for that week, although it might have been quite prophetic given the news over the last week. I had been reading a few biographies and had been struck by one thread; whilst all of the people concerned have been highly regarded by some, or many, they have been flawed as individuals.

Now this is not uncommon for have we not had a long held view that our idols have feet of clay? But it can still come as a shock to find out just how awful someone you have admired as, say, an entertainer or sports star is as a person. Sometimes it is better not to know as it might taint your pleasure at their performance, but there are occasions when something becomes public and a career is destroyed. I don’t defend people for wrong doings, but I can think of two people, now thoroughly disgraced, whom I saw live in the 1970s and 80s and was royally entertained every time that I went to see them (neither of them was a certain DJ).

Of course modern standards of reporting are different, and what would have been ignored in the 1950s or early 60s started to become big news in the mid years of the latter decade, the Profumo scandal being perhaps one of the first to emerge. I am in favour of a free press though, although those accused should always have an equal right of reply and that is not an easy thing to achieve in these days of social media.

But the  above is all about the celebrity side of things and I want to look this week at how such things impact on business leaders, for they too are mere mortals and also can be flawed as people. We are all human and have to balance our public image, the one that those around us in a work environment see, with that of our private lives. Just as a prominent figure in sports or entertainment can be a poor role model if they behave badly in public the same can apply to someone from the business world.

There is the argument that what you do in your job is one thing, but what you do outside of work, whatever that might be, is your affair. My own feeling is that if you get into a position of leadership you are also a role model and that comes with some responsibility for your actions; having people trust you is fundamental to leading, so betrayal of that trust is simply that; a betrayal.

In all such cases it is the perception of others that makes the news as we judge the individual and we rarely know the truth, so just how much of a paragon is it reasonable to expect business leaders to be? Or to take it to a different level would you abandon a friend who strayed? Or a relative? Where does the line get drawn?

It all depends on the circumstances and the nature of the transgression, but for anyone in a leadership role your reputation is king, so putting it at risk is not worth it. The simplest thing can trip you up as Gerald Ratner found a few years back, and that was months after the event. There is of course a considerable difference in terms of the deed between a, with hindsight, ill-judged remark and an abuse of position, but the results can be similar. Is that fair? No it isn’t, but nor is life.



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