Angela Merkel is "unimaginative." Nicolas Sarkozy is an “emperor with no clothes.” The Saudis want the U.S. to “cut off the head of the snake” (Iran). And the Chinese view North Korea as a “spoiled child.”
These gossipy tidbits come to us from a recent WikiLeaks release of classified government documents. The comments drawn from U.S. State Department cables were meant to be confidential but are now known around the world. This unauthorized release of government documents should get leaders thinking: what if someone “wiki leaked” you?
We would like to think that leaders, be it corporate or public, are owed a measure of privacy in personal and private communications. If everything anyone ever said about someone else, be it an employee, a constituent, a competitor or even a rival, was made public, the number of feathers ruffled would denude fowl the world over.
Leaders are not owed loyalty; they earn it; and part of the earning process involves a show of good faith from leader to follower. If the leader has good intentions, he or she should expect trust, but not assume it. Politics as conducted in capitals or in corporate board rooms thrives on gossip and innuendo, some of it perpetrated by insiders seeking to promote or undo one leader or another, sometimes even people they work for.
Taking the bigger picture, leaders need to keep in mind that what they say in private might go public. This is not good news, but it should make leaders cautious about what they say to whom and when they say it. So here are some ground rules for executives:
• Think before you speak. Whatever an executive says is magnified by the title he holds. Positive comments will echo the halls; negative comments will reverberate inside people. It is okay to be critical but avoid denigrating others. Also, use facts for arguments, not simple opinions.
• Don't “McChrystal” yourself. The undoing of General Stanley McChrystal was allowing a reporter to have full access even during off hours when the general and his staffers were unwinding over cocktails. Therefore, know who is listening and if you don't know them, shut up.
• Keep your back to the wall. What worked for sheriffs in the Old West may work for executives. Protect your backside but keep your eyes focused on what's coming through the door. Also, tune into the grapevine; it often is the best way to discover what's going on within an organization.
• Know this, too: if someone wants to take you down, do not expect him or her to do it with honor. Assume the worst of people you do not trust. Backstabbers know no bounds.
Will leaders slip up and say something untoward? Of course, because they are subject to all the human frailties that plague us all: anger, aggression, arrogance, and atavism. The challenge is to keep them in check. If something you said in private that was meant to be private gets out, apologize and get on with life.
Recall what Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said about WikiLeaks: Nations “deal with the United States because it's in their interest...not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets.”
In short, self-interest outweighs hurt feelings. If you do your job, people will give you a second chance.
First posted on FastCompany.com on 12/01/10