Thin air requires thick skin


This article was originally published on Roundtable Talk, official blog of The Executive Roundtable, an accelerator group for next generation executives.

Even if you don’t reside in Toronto, you probably know all about (former) Mayor Rob Ford. He’s just the latest in a string of leaders (and I do use the term loosely) who refuse to take accountability for their actions – think Lance Armstrong, think Conrad Black.

Rob Ford made a mistake. We all do from time to time. But it’s how we act in the face of our mistakes that separates the mice (rats?) from the men. Real leaders take it on the chin. They admit their mistakes. They make amends. And they mean it.

Then, there’s Lance, Conrad and Rob. A few weeks ago, after being stripped of his Tour de France titles, Lance Armstrong tweeted a picture of himself lounging on his couch, surrounded by seven yellow jerseys. Conrad Black did a series of interviews – one where he threatened to smash a reporter in the face – painting himself as the victim of character assassination, long after being found guilty and serving time in prison. Rob Ford, recently relieved of his job (pending an appeal, of course), continues to stubbornly resist any suggestion of wrongdoing because, after all, he was elected to stop the gravy train.

Consider that a collective FU from some titans of sport, business and government. Add insult to injury by blaming various bogeyman for their predicaments – “the IOC witch hunt;” “the corrupt American justice system;” “the left wing conspiracy.”

Here’s the thing about being a leader… the air up there is thin. Leaders are in the crosshairs, under a microscope, whatever hackneyed metaphor you want to use. When you’re the leader, you’re exposed. You, more than anyone else, must act with integrity. You must behave. You must operate well within the confines of your space. So not even a Sinutab if you’re a champion cyclist. Not even a single paperclip from the office supply cabinet if you’re a business leader. And not one penny from anyone solicited using your official letterhead, even if it is “for the kids.”

Because that’s what it takes to be a leader. You’re setting an example.

To act any differently is hubristic and risky as hell. Take that risk and you deserve whatever rains down on you.