Posted by: Kristen Ridley | November 17, 2013

Do you wanna be “in charge” or successful?!

BossyThe title of this post is a question that’s been top of mind for me recently. There are a number of situations that have brought that leadership dichotomy front and centre, but the most glaring, and painful is what is happening  at the moment with the mayor of Toronto [where I live].

I shouldn’t assume that everyone and anyone reading this is aware of the Rob Ford debacle that Toronto is currently enduring [although, given that every news outlet, from CNN to Jon Stewart, and even The Onion have now covered the story it has gone pretty far and wide, sadly] so for the 3 people who haven’t heard about it, our mayor has admitted to smoking crack cocaine while in office, to drinking himself “into a drunken stupor”, and has been accused of having prostitutes at city hall, drinking while driving, sexually and verbally harassing city hall employees and a host of other clearly inappropriate behaviours for the mayor of the largest city in Canada, and the fourth largest city in North America. And despite the fact that he has been asked to resign or at least take a leave by not only the majority of the city council and large numbers of Toronto residents, Ford has adamantly refused to consider stepping down, insisting that he has apologized, and that’s the end of it – he’s moving forward.

Unfortunately for the mayor, he is about the only one who thinks he can simply apologize [and not even very believeably in my opinion] and go on as though nothing happened. He continues to be besieged by councillors, the media, the citizens of Toronto and a host of others with demands that he step aside since any credibility or capability to effectively run the business of the city is long gone for him. Unfortunately for the city, the structure of our municipality provides no way to remove him from office if he refuses to step down unless he is convicted of a crime. So despite the fact that he has become an international punch-line and a painful embarrassment to the city, we are stuck with him until and unless he comes to his senses and resigns, or until the next municipal election in the fall of 2014.

This painful and ugly situation is a perfect example of the leader who doesn’t understand that communication is a two-way activity. Even if you are “in charge”, whether of a large urban city, or of a team in a corporate organization,  effective communication must involve both talking and listening. And just to be clear, both parties have to talk AND listen!

I think we’ve all at some point come into contact with the kind of leader who believes that because they are “in charge” all they must do is pronounce what they are positive are shining pearls of wisdom from on high – you know, like Zeus from Olympus?! These folks assume that once they have dictated what they want, all the people on their teams will just “make it so” as Captain Picard used to say to Number One on Star Trek The Next Generation TV show.

The problem with this approach is that human beings, particularly intelligent, dedicated human beings, resent being treated like five-year olds or slaves, and while they may follow the letter of what you’ve told them to do – because most employees in this situation know that’s what they need to do to keep their jobs – that is not at all the same thing as having genuinely engaged and actively participative employee ambassadors working with you to deliver on whatever your team needs to deliver. It is really easy for employees to deliver the letter of the instructions they’ve been given, without going to the next level of support and commitment that would really make a project a success. And because this kind of behaviour is always going to be under the radar, it’s hard to fix, unless you accept that you need these people, and treating them with the genuine respect and acknowledgement they deserve is the only way to get them actively working to make your business successful.

Rob Ford’s biggest issue is that his denial of the reality of his situation, and his arrogance about his ability to continue to be mayor is putting him into a bubble of “it’s all about ME!!” And the truth is, whether you are the mayor of Toronto or the manager of a team at XYZ corporation, it is NEVER all about you! There are ALWAYS dozens of other people involved in making any endeavour a success, and you ignore the opinions and needs of those people at your peril. I actually wrote a previous post about how, as a communicator, I need to continually remind myself that in order to be successful, I often have to put aside what I may want, if that isn’t what’s best for getting the job at hand accomplished. The same goes for leaders.

I don’t for a moment believe myself qualified to advise Rob Ford on his situation [and as recent events have proven, he wouldn’t listen to me anyway, so why waste the breath?!] but I do have some suggestions for leaders in corporate environments, because those I know what I’m talking about [after almost 15 years doing corporate communications, I’d better]. These are things leaders can do to make sure they have a realistic understanding of what’s happening “in the trenches” with the people doing the work, because you can’t fix it if you don’t even know it’s happening!

An “open door” isn’t good enough – lots of leaders put that “my door is always open” business into their communications, and there’s nothing wrong with it, as long as your door really IS open. But even that isn’t always enough because depending on your location, and the structure of your organization, not all employees are going to be comfortable strolling into the boss’s office to tell him or her all the things that are not working around here. No, if you really want to know what’s what, you need to walk around and ASK! I have learned in my years of doing this job, that there is little more powerful than the grand poo-bah showing up in the call centre, or the sales floor, or wherever the bulk of his/her employees work unexpectedly and just walking around and talking with people. Asking real questions, and listening actively to the answers is powerful. Not only does it demonstrate that you as the leader really want to know how to make things better, but it takes the pressure off the employees to come to you. It also shows a humility and respect and proves you don’t think you’re too important to go to them, rather than making them come to you.

Encourage and empower the opinion leaders – there are opinion leaders in every business, and usually in every team. These are the people who know everybody, who know what’s going on – good and bad – in the business, and most importantly, these people aren’t afraid to talk about what’s going on. These are the people you as a leader need to find, and talk to on a regular basis. These people can give you a WEALTH of information you will probably never hear otherwise, and if you empower them by letting other employees know that you are talking to those people and listening to what they say, then more and more of the other employees will start telling those opinion makers the things you need to know. Because no matter how much they believe in the company, there are always going to be employees who just aren’t going to seek out leaders and tell them what isn’t working. So by giving them a proxy, you are making sure that everyone who wants to share information to make things better, has a means to do that that works for them.

Put your ego on the back burner – sometimes leaders take it as a personal affront when people suggest that things in the business aren’t perfect. First off, it ISN’T a personal insult or diss to you when employees give you feedback that something isn’t working, or that it could work better. It’s hard for leaders to hear this sometimes, but the employees aren’t actually thinking about YOU all through their workdays. They are busy DOING THE WORK of your organization. So, instead of getting your feelings or your dignity hurt, put aside any thought of the feedback being disrespectful or insubordinate. Instead, accept this feedback for what it is – genuine, honest, helpful information about how to make things better from the people best positioned to know.

Act on what you hear – this is the most important point, and often the one that is hardest to do for some leaders. Nobody LIKES to be told they’re missing the mark or doing something wrong, and leaders most of all have a great deal invested in being the smartest one at the table. But as I said earlier, nobody can be successful alone, and while you probably are very smart and have a great handle on how to run the business, you can’t know everything, so why not take advantage of the dozens, hundreds or thousands of employees doing the day-to-day work of your company and use the feedback they offer. Think about it – the last thing employees want to do is anger their boss, so if they are sticking out their necks to make suggestions for improving business, you should be thanking them and giving serious consideration to the ideas you hear.

So, as things often do when you are a leader, this comes down to answering the question in the title of this post. Because you get to continue to be “the boss” but simply by virtue of holding that title, you do not automatically get to be right all the time. Success almost always comes from encouraging everyone involved in your business to continually be looking for and suggesting ways to make the business grow. And if you are fortunate enough to have employees who want to make things better, all you have to do is listen.



  1. I just like the three things that made it more interesting…
    1. Rob Ford bringing forward mandatory substance testing – even at his own cost – and that being shot down by council (really suspicious, as it makes them look like they have something to hide…but maybe I am missing the whole story, being in a different part of the country). And that this is an effort for him “trying”?
    2. That at the FB game, TSN took a shot of him watching the (FB – TO vs Ham – CFL Eastern Final) game in a section where he bought “his own” ticket; and showed him shaking hands with others, quite positive, except that they lingered a bit long (intentionally?) on his body guard handing him paper towels after shaking hands with someone…kinda looks like he’s superior/or germaphobic?
    3. All the external coverage and humour, discredits the big smoke brand, but also credits it…exposure on the big stage, and given the other mayoral stuff in the USA (think mob ties, corruption, etc.); that it happens here in Canada too (and Rob Ford is the perfect image, a “family” guy with a few extra pounds, who likes to drink, is the “average guy” that people like to harp on. His genune character is what sells him and hurts him at the same time…but the comparisons to a drunk santa and some of the other stuff is unf. kinda fitting. (Or maybe King Ralph?)
    Yes, people screw up (sometimes royally, as Rob Ford seems to do consistently…I remember he was in hot water the last time I was in TO – a year ago)…in my mind, I’d rather a “normal” person with knowledge and skills than someone who is superior to others. But IDK. (I do like that he’s seemingly human.)
    Ultimately, people look to damage those in power so they can “take over”…politics is pretty corrupt on a good day…look at the USA attack ads; more about what someone “did”, not how they will “lead”. We’re just becoming more americanized, and fitting that it’s Canada’s largest city (when will something happen in Vancouver…maybe a BC pot smoking mayor?).

  2. Dear “me””: Thanks for your comment. Although the main intent of my post wasn’t really to deconstruct the Rob Ford situation, as someone who has lived in Toronto for more than 20 years, who is deeply proud of my city, and who recognizes the realities of both human nature and politics [at least, I like to think I do] the biggest issue related to him and his recent choices, is that he is making it impossible for the city council to complete the necessary day-to-day business of Toronto.

    The other issue I have with him – and with any other publicly elected official – is that he has consistently lied about or hidden the inappropriate choices and bad behaviours he has engaged in until he was found out and had no choice but to come clean. Aside from the fact that the new world of social media means you are always going to get caught in a lie eventually, as an elected official, if you have done something you feel the need to hide then I think we all know that is a serious problem. And Rob Ford has made such choices repeatedly. Even his celebrated “apologies” have rung decidedly false to me – more of an: “I’ve apologized, so now you should just let me off the hook”. Here’s the thing – in the real world, just because you apologize for something, even if you ARE genuinely sorry – and I’m not convinced he is – that doesn’t absolve you of the consequences of your bad choices, especially when you are a public servant.

    Finally, the blatant arrogance Ford displays to anyone who dares to question him or recommend any adjustments to his behaviour [see the multiple advisors and staffers who’ve either quit or been fired because he didn’t like their advice] is not in any way what we need from our elected officials. You mention the U.S., but we are NOT the U.S. – at least, not yet, and I for one utterly reject the U.S. attack style of governing. It is in no way what I want from my political representatives. Rob Ford is doing irreparable harm to Toronto, and the business, tourism and financial impacts of this debacle are likely to be felt here for years to come. All because he refuses to accept that he is not what the city needs in a mayor.

    So while I understand why people living in other places find this all terribly entertaining, nobody I know who lives here finds this at all funny. We are disappointed, and embarrassed and often disgusted by what Rob Ford has done, and continues to do to Toronto. Because the other thing which can’t be noted enough is that virtually every claim he’s made in in all his recent interviews about what he has done during his time in office are inaccurate at best and downright false at worst. See this Toronto Star article for details:

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