The phrase of my week is ‘Impression Management’. Oh and I love it, for how aptly it describes much of the superficiality in our society. It immediately reminded me of a story shared by an accounting executive who was rebuked for nestling his second hand, seven year old car in the Partners dedicated parking. The message to him ‘either upgrade your car, or downgrade your parking booth’. Impression management!

I was digging through some academic articles from the late 1990’s and discovered that in North America over 50% of all externally hired executives either failed or were fired within their first 12 months.  To my surprise tasks, skills and capabilities were not the primary cause of their demise – those were all expertly vetted in rounds of psychometric assessments and panel interviews (we seem to have overloaded our approach to finding the best people with even more of that). What had in fact stalled their integration and rise within the c-suite, was their inability to sustain their ‘Impression Management.’ In other words, they revealed their true selves and exposed the inherent nature of who they were. What the organisation saw was unpleasant and incongruent, and consequently they had to go. It seems that when the chips were down, and the stress was rising, those who had glossy, manicured images designed to seduce and be essentially likable and impressive (impression – impressive, see the link?), couldn’t sustain their charade.

More interesting to me, is what was it that they were trying to hide? And what was revealed? What were their intentions? and what was the impact of the dramatically changing impression they left with others?

In all cases, what emerged under pressure was the extent to which they could (or couldn’t) manage their impulses, emotional reactions, feelings and drives. Those that managed these poorly, were perceived to be low in judgement, and over time, their integrity (built on their reliability, consistency and honesty) was eroded too. They might have tried to bully with positional power for a while but then completely lose their ability to take others along with them. They become desperate.

It then dawned on me; Judgement and Integrity are two fundamental components of character. Character is shaped, developed or stunted by all the experiences of a person’s life. In short, those with weaker character have less self-awareness and poorly regulate their impulses and emotions under pressure. They exposed their aggression, flight or fight tendencies, immaturity, self destructive behaviours and selfishness, and damaged the relationships around them (a current US president offers a daily showcase of what that actually looks like, and scarily there is a lot of Trump in many of the people around us). Those with strong character tend to think as much about others and themselves when under pressure, and expertly manage the rising distraction and power of their inner selves.

I have spent the past 10 years designing and delivering leadership development programs, really good ones, which have filled many heads and hearts with skills and awareness, but never, not once, have we considered (or even named) the critical importance of understanding, defining, measuring and developing character.  Maybe that is why so many managers and leaders with reams of certificates and course attendance notes, still fail to inspire confidence through their judgement and integrity. It is my next crusade, to put character at the forefront of the way we think and appreciate the leaders and colleagues around us. To peer into the Leadership Blind Spot!

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