What Do You Do When the Boss Gets Whistled

Harry S. Truman (1884 – 1972), 1945 – 1953 the...

President Harry S. Truman

Curiosity, the saying goes, killed the cat – as have a couple of other things. It’s also gotten a boss or two fired as well.

The question is just what do you do when it’s the boss who is doing something they shouldn’t be? Their quasi-misdeed gets highlighted; if they were playing sports the action would merit a whistle or a penalty flag.

To be clear, this is not the stuff that’s illegal; no $20MM embezzlement, Berkshire Hawthaway conflict of interest, or possible sexual harassment incident.

This is the stuff organization’s determine they simply don’t do; low or zero tolerance even for a what might seem a petty violation. Things like asking employees how they answered employee opinion surveys (the curiosity part) and looking through personnel files that are none of their business. Or taking home that ream (or case of paper) from the office, or fudging to include some gray-area personal expenses on the company credit card charge.

Let’s be clear; most leaders I know spend time and money on company business that never gets reimbursed or recognized. The rub is when things that the rank and file shouldn’t be doing get done by people at the top; it puts people off, and sends the wrong tone. But when you stray as a leader from what you say you should be doing you cross into a no-win zone.

Here’s the deal; the high water standard for any organization needs to be set at the top. You would hope that standards throughout a firm on performance, client service, ethics will be the same or higher as the C-suite but the reality is that it’s likely to be only as good as what leaders say and do.

So when the boss gets outed for doing something minor that they shouldn’t you either pretend it didn’t happen, and use it be a learning opportunity for everyone. I don’t think you’ve got much choice; breed cynicism (IMHO the worst cancer of all in an organization) or suck it up, take someone to the woodshed (even if it is the boss penalizing themselves), and learn from it.

Former President Harry Truman (aka “Give ‘Em Hell Harry”) is known for many things including his saying (and sign on his desk) that “The Buck Stops Here.” He publicly drew a line between personal and work expenses; private letters were paid out of his pocket by stamps he bought personally.

While the lines between personal and work related privileges and rights today (given the change in technology) are harder today, Truman’s spirit is one you should emulate as a leader if you want high, and clear standards. If you want lower organizational standards, think leadership such as Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton – and be prepared to mop up the mess when people do what you do, and not what you say.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

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