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Defining a Leader Publicly

In many activities, an organization’s supporters and adversaries form their opinion of the organization from the perception they have of its leaders. If the leader has an image that commands attention and respect, the organization is in a stronger position to achieve its purpose.

An effective organization does not wait for those outside the organization to define its leader’s image. Outsiders often do so in light of their own agendas or based on isolated experiences. It is better to publicly define our own leaders in terms of their real strengths, values, achievements, and goals. At lower levels of leadership this may be as simple as mentioning these when we speak to more senior leaders or to leaders of other groups. At higher levels this may warrant an orchestrated public relations effort. Successful public relations uses only images built on reality. It is the leader’s responsibility to live by the values she projects. It is our responsibility to help her do this.

We must not expect perfection from our leaders as this contributes to the delusion of the infallible leader. We are right to expect, however, that leaders substantively live up to the image we are projecting with their agreement. By confronting leaders about departures from their publicly stated values, we help them remain the people they want to be.

There are several principles to keep in mind when projecting a leader’s image:

We should never cover up a leader’s behavior that does not conform to her public image.

We should use the discrepancy between publicly held values and personal behavior as feedback to help a leader reexamine her values and behavior.

Simultaneously, we should act to prevent the leader’s detractors from redefining her image based on behavior that was an exception to her values and virtues.

Reducing the complexity of a human being to digestible images is dangerous and difficult, but courageous followers recognize that this occurs and participate in the process with a deep regard for truth.