In summer 2009 I worked a job with a very strict dress code. As a faithful student of Cornell’s School of Industrial & Labor Relations, I was well versed in workplace etiquette and the intricacies of office attire. I knew all the ageless maxims: “Dress for success”; “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have”; etc. So every morning, before stepping out into the punishing Washington D.C. heat, I assembled my wardrobe in a meticulously choreographed routine.
The first step was relatively rote, if unconventional in relation to formal work contexts; I slipped on a fresh pair of athletic shorts and an exercise t-shirt. Next were the ice-packs. Retrieving ice packs from the freezer where I safely stashed them after the previous shift, I tightly wrapped myself with frosty Velcro body armor. After the ice was the pajama pants, followed by the trench coat, paw gloves, and, finally, the dog head.
I should probably explain my occupation. I was employed as McGruff the Crime Dog for the National Museum of Crime & Punishment. Barely two years through higher education and I was already a professional costumed mascot roaming the summer streets of the nation’s Capital. Yet despite slipping into sweaty anonymity as I paraded around the city, observers remarked that I maintained my distinct personality during the summer. My energy, quirkiness, and diligence seeped out of the suit. I was committed to an agenda of promoting the museum and I executed that agenda by using the suit as a tool rather than a crutch.
Every job has some sort of dress code. Whether explicit, implicit, or explicitly nonexistent, employees are aware of their appearance when they enter the workforce. Even if a job cheerfully asserts a casual code, an employee who defies the norm with a sharply tailored business suit immediately becomes “other” and fodder for criticism.
The McGruff position taught me that we all enter our respective offices in costume. We are all costumed mascots conforming to an office culture. A leader, however, knows how to respect the artifice of costume while executing an agenda that transcends this artifice. As Chrisopher Walken famously said while playing a music producer on Saturday Night Live, “I put my pants on just like the rest of you — one leg at a time. Except, once my pants are on, I make gold records.”
As a leader, whether your pants are fine cotton trousers or shoddy pajamas, you must not allow your dress to define your agenda. You must work in concert with costume and understand how your clothes communicate your organizational and agenda values. Be aware of your appearance, but don’t lose your head over it. After all, you could be wearing a dog’s head.