They’re watching every move you make. Everything you say and do, even your attitude, is under constant scrutiny by your followers. Some actually take notes, most talk about you during lunch and at home, but all record everything in that imperfect memory device called the brain. Unfortunately, this “invisible spotlight” that you are under shines no light to serve as a reminder that you’re being watched. For the followers, though, the spotlight is very bright and they perceive everything with vivid detail and color.
This phenomenon of observation is critical because followers learn from you what is truly important to you and the organization. They learn by observing and then mimic your behavior and adopt it—good or bad. (Try an experiment such as this: If you wear a tie to the office, try not doing so for a week and see what happens to the dressing habits of others.) It is almost impossible to overcome the belief that to be like the boss is to be liked by the boss. More importantly, they will learn and adopt your attitudes, too.
A recent book by Craig Wasserman and Doug Katz, “The Invisible Spotlight,”1 explains this phenomenon of persistent watchfulness by followers. They said that every leader has critical moments of interaction to build relationships with followers separated by spans of silent scrutiny. The critical moments are both formal and informal situations. Formal situations include meetings, feedback discussions, confrontations, and other work-related events. The effective leader carefully plans these and anticipates possible scenarios to utilize them for building the relationship as well as the follower.
Informal situations include interactions in the parking lot and hallway, social events, a chat about a recent vacation, and many other situations. Informal interactions are more meaningful to followers for learning what is important to you because they assume you are not staging the situation to achieve something. The effective leader, with practice, understands this and also leverages informal situations to build relationships and people. This takes much effort but the impact on your leadership is tremendous.
What about those spans of silent scrutiny between critical moments of interaction? These are the times you are being watched when the watcher may not even realize it. They observe how you greet a warehouse worker. They see what happens when you spill coffee on your pants. They see how you celebrate your favorite team’s latest win. They hear the tone in your voice when you reprimand a coworker. They see your reaction to an unintended insult. It may not seem fair, but all of these unplanned and unscripted events are incredibly powerful statements about who you are, what is important to you, and how you lead others.
Perhaps the most powerful of all events under the invisible spotlight is when you make a mistake. What do you do when you’ve messed up? The worst thing you can do is to blame someone or something else. There are few ways to more quickly undermine your own credibility and leadership than shifting blame. Almost as bad is ignoring the mistake. You might think you’re successfully ignoring it, but no one else has forgotten! The best approach is to take responsibility for your failure and work hard to make amends in a public way. After you’ve dealt with the initial fallout, what you do over the coming days, weeks, and months to restore credibility and relationship will be closely watched.
As a leader, you are being watched every minute of every day, on the job or not. You can do nothing to change this—nor should you! How you deal with the invisible spotlight is an incredibly powerful leadership tool! The more you’re aware of this and the more you intentionally work with it, the more powerful your leadership will be.
One more thing: Happy birthday to my sons, Alex and Andrew, who turn 16 today. You are a great blessing to your mother and me. We are proud of you and blessed to be your parents!
1: Wasserman, Craig and Doug Katz. The Invisible Spotlight: Why Managers Can’t Hide. Seattle, WA: CreateSpace, 2011.