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Hockey, Square Dancing & Strauss-Kahn

The other day I foraged up another suppressed memory from the vaults that house my traumatizing middle school experiences. The experience affords me an unlikely empathy with Dominique Strauss-Kahn this week but more on that later.

Unlike my other buried gems such as the Tator Tot Incident or the Ketchup Burp, this adolescent episode occurred outside of the dreaded cafeteria social swamp. In seventh grade physical education—the only education where my graphing calculator was rendered useless—my teacher made the fatal mistake of handing me a floor hockey stick.

While I carefully choreographed most gym periods to spend the 40 minutes completing MadLibs in the bathroom, on this unfortunate day I was fully dressed for the gym part. Outfitted in pink-eye stained goggles and clutching a stick twice my size, I rumbled onto the floor where social reputations were born and reared. While I’d like to report that this chapter ended with me simply scurrying around the room like a startled chinchilla, fortune had it that stormy suburban afternoon that I would end up with the puck.

After ricocheting off the ample dome of a fellow gym outcast, the puck came to rest in front of me. Like an arachnophobe meeting Spiderman I spun around, scrunched my perspiring brow, and struck the puck, sending it careening across the unforgiving floor.

In pink eye hindsight, two elements of that shot were extraordinary. First, despite my feral assault, the puck went airborne rather than sinking into a dented floor. Second, the puck, as if synced into a finely calibrated GPS unit, cleanly bypassed a befuddled goalie and infiltrated his netted ward. In a haze of blinding euphoria, I reacted by triumphantly putting my square dancing skills to work.

I think I completed two solo do-si-dos before I absorbed the news. In place of a celebratory Gatorade shower, my peeved peers rained down their disapproval on me for accidentally shooting on my own goal. I scored for the opponents. If MadLibs asked for an adjective to describe my reputation, pathetic or mutilated would probably suffice. It took a lot of chocolate milk and shrimp poppers to smother my shame and repair the damage done that day.

So where does this story intersect with former Director of the IMF and accused sexual predator Dominique Strauss Kahn? Yesterday prosecutors surrendered their case against the disgraced politician. Legally, he is innocent of fault in the case even if he did likely shoot his puck into the wrong goal so to speak. Yet despite his official vindication, his personal and professional reputations are beyond tainted. If you could liquefy his reputation, it would be less quenching than the Gulf of Mexico after the BP oil spill. And tater tots offer little respite to an aspiring president of France.

Proactive leaders must cautiously approach their reputation as they would a porcelain cricket in a Tiffany’s. Appreciate its value and fiercely protect it from clumsy intrusions. Yet understand that your organization is bound by the law of uncertainty and even the most politically savvy leader can’t prevent the ground from shaking occasionally. You need to prepare for the inevitable earthquake by cultivating strong coalitions and robust support networks. These supporters will be your insurance policy when the first tremors arrive.

Finally, avoid the ego trap like you avoided your middle school cafeteria’s vintage pizza nuggets. Swaggering around your office with an air of invincibility will neither advance your agenda nor secure you water wings when your reputation sinks. Soliciting coalitional support is not the same as aggressive seduction and Strauss-Kahn abandoned modesty when he inherited the nickname “The Great Seducer”. He fell into the ego trap and continued to fall until he landed in the U.S. criminal justice system. It was a textbook error akin to driving a Zamboni through the Tiffany’s storeroom.

So, to simplify, politically savvy leaders shoot straight while preserving their reputation and know not to do-si-do when their puck flies astray.

Photo Credit: mannpollon

BLG Leadership Insights

When is Superstar Leadership Needed?

This month’s Atlantic piece, Do CEOs Matter? has nicely laid out the conventional arguments for and against the need for aggressive leadership within organizations. The author, Harris Collingwood, ends by essentially saying that good leaders can create small gains whereas bad leaders will be responsible for huge losses. The idea here is: leaders can’t make mistakes.

CEOs represent the head of the social organization that is called a company. They are responsible for deciding where the company is headed, what it will avoid, and what it will say to the press. According to Collingwood, it goes without saying that sometimes companies, like families, will have poor figureheads representing them. In such cases, when the head of the family is cursed with bad luck and skills, the company will be adversely effected in a big way.

Yet, as the article did a good job of pointing out, it all depends on the type of social organization we’re dealing with.  Companies like Apple, lead by the energetically brilliant and ailing Steve Jobs, are in the business of technology–producing and selling hip electronics at competitive prices. Turnover is fast and tastes change dramatically. A CEO like Steve Jobs is needed to make bold calls and set trends before the competitors do. Steve Jobs, in this roll, is essential and his choices mean the difference between success and failure.

Place Steve Jobs at the head of a more traditional business, say a Saw Mill, and his energy, enthusiasm, and creativity won’t significantly effect the bottom line since the company’s ultimate success is tied to the cost of supplies, i.e. gas, and wood.

Good leadership is still essential for every company, whether it be static or energetic, because it can translate to better results and an organizational set up. However, ‘superstar’ leaders who aren’t competent have the dangerous ability to quickly ruin their company in mere weeks. In the world of celebrity CEOs like Steve Jobs, Donald Trump, and Bill Gates etc., it’s tempting to imitate their commanding leadership styles. It’s wise to remember that their industries demand more brazen leadership choices–yours might not. Humility, modesty, and a solid work ethic, though old-fashioned, are still more reliable character traits in a good leader; a leader who can guarantee positive results.