Leaders set the tone for their followers and organizations. Every leader from team lead to CEO makes an impact on others. Whether or not leaders know it, their followers monitor, magnify, and often mimic their behaviors. I worked with a company where the CEO did almost all of the talking in meetings, interrupted everyone, and silenced dissenting subordinates. His COO and other senior vice presidents complained about him behind his back, but as time went on, the COO started acting the very same way. All the skills, experience and training that made him an effective COO began to change.
The ripple effects of this CEO’s style are consistent with findings from peer-reviewed studies showing that senior executives’ actions can reverberate throughout organizations, ultimately undermining or bolstering their cultures and performance levels.
Linda Hudson, CEO of BAE Systems, got this message after becoming the first female president of General Dynamics. After her first day on the job, a dozen women in her office imitated how she tied her scarf. Hudson realized, “It really was now about me and the context of setting the tone for the organization. That was a lesson I have never forgotten—that as a leader, people are looking at you in a way that you could not have imagined in other roles.” Hudson added that such scrutiny and the consequent responsibility is “something that I think about virtually every day.”
In your leadership role you too should think about the impact you make on future leaders. The best leaders work tenaciously to stay in tune with this relentless attention and use it to their advantage. They know that the success of their people and organizations depends on maintaining an accurate view of how others construe their moods and moves—and responding with rapid, effective adjustments.
That view is invaluable for leaders as they try to carry out their first and most important task: convincing others that they are in charge. Leaders who fail to do this will find their jobs impossible, their lives hell, and their tenures short. Of course, taking charge effectively isn’t enough. The best leaders also boost performance by watching their people’s backs: making it safe for them to learn, act, and take intelligent risks; shielding them from unnecessary distractions and external idiocy of every stripe; and doing hundreds more little things that help them achieve one small win after another—and feel pride, respect and dignity along the way.