Leadership: Somebody’s Always Watching


Funny thing about being in a leadership position, you’re always being watched. While you probably won’t be stalked by paparazzi like a movie star, you are definitely being watched. Everything from how quickly you walk to your nonverbal expressions will be analyzed and interpreted into many different contextual cues your employees will use to determine your mood and approachability.

All of us have certain mannerisms that give off indicators. These are magnified when you’re in a leadership position, because people feed off the leader’s energy, or can be drained from the lack thereof.

About ten years or so ago, I was still on active duty in the Air Force and was a squadron commander. I was going through one of those tough spells when things weren’t going right, and I was feeling beaten down. I came home late one night from work, and when I walked through the front door, my wife, Jenny, greeted me by saying, “Please tell me you’re not walking through your squadron looking like that.”

What a kick in the pants. I was already feeling low, and then to hear that. But you know what?  It was exactly what I needed to hear at that moment. You see, I’m not a tall man to begin with, but when I walked through the door that night, I must’ve looked a good four inches shorter than I already am. And yes, that’s probably how I looked walking through my squadron.  Tired, grumpy and defeated. Not exactly the essence of confidence we hope to see in our leaders. I have to imagine my folks were avoiding me like I had a horribly contagious disease.

The natural reaction to a comment like the one Jenny provided is to get defensive, and typically, I probably would’ve done that. But Jenny wasn’t trying to be hurtful or mean, she knew how much I cared about my people and also knew this wasn’t how I wanted to project myself. Again, it was a kick in the pants, but it was definitely good for correcting my course.  Somebody was watching.

It’s easy to strut around when things are going well and be supportive and glad-handing. It’s more difficult during times of adversity. Those times will most certainly come when you are in a leadership position. People will disappoint you. The system will disappoint you. Your best laid plans will fall apart at times. Tough decision will have to be made. You will face a host of emotions ranging from joy to anger to utter disbelief. Somebody is watching how you handle those tough times.

Here are some tips on how to handle those times, knowing people are always watching:

If times are tough for you, they are probably tough for your employees as well. While you don’t have to be a cheerleader, it’s important to remember that when an organization is facing challenges, people need to know they are being supported and are believed in. This is the time to stand tall and be decisive…lead the way.

No one expects you to be a robot. There will be times when you have earned the right to be angry or disappointed or a host of other emotions. It’s okay to show some humanness, but be careful not to dwell on it. Walking around as if the world is too heavy for your shoulders will resonate throughout your organization.

Smile more. I’ve been told on an occasion or two I have a resting grumpy face. So just by doing nothing but sitting and breathing, there are people who perceive me to be in a foul mood or mean. If that’s your thing, well, use it. I prefer to use the power of a smile to overcome that faux grumpy exterior. It disarms people and certainly makes me appear more approachable.

Misery may love company, but few people want to be in the company of someone who is miserable. If you are falling into a “woe is me” outlook on life, you may need to take a break, go work out, get some fresh air, go on a quick vacation or take a long look in the mirror and sort things out. I’ve worked for people who hated what they were doing and were just plain, old miserable. Everyone around them was miserable too. Misery is not a great motivator and rarely results in long-term excellence.

Leadership is like being in a parade every day. It’s not a bad thing. You’ve earned your leadership position, and this is just something that comes with the territory. Walk tall and display confidence. Yes, sometimes you may have to dig deep to find enthusiasm, but it’s important. It’s not about your image — it’s about providing the physical leadership people need.

You may be thinking this is all rather superficial. That is certainly not my intent. I remember my drill instructor during basic training yelling, “Look sharp. Feel sharp. Be sharp!”  Sometimes when things are not going your way, the best you can do is look sharp and play the part. The more you do that, the more you remember how you are supposed to feel and act. Then before you know it, you are being what you have been called to be — a leader.

Simplistic perhaps, but it’s a good reminder of how much impact a shrug of the shoulders can have…or walking through an organization looking four inches shorter than you really are. Somebody is always watching. However, you have the power to shape their perceptions.


Brian Schooley is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Francesca El-Attrash

Brian, I love the personal reflection you incorporate and this is such an important way to think about leadership.

Mike Hagen

Great thoughts here Mr. Schooley and as you point out with your example, its the leader being willing to be open to and use feedback to make adjustments.

Brian Schooley

Thanks Mike. It ties in to a post I wrote a month or so ago regarding an open door policy. If you are going to have one, you need to have an open mind policy. Same holds true with feedback…you need to listen and actually accept it and honestly consider it for the adjustments you mention.