In The Age Of Transparency, Command-And-Control Leadership Loses Its Iron Grip

CrossFit CEO Greg Glassman learned the hard way that leaders live in a fishbowl, and credibility can be destroyed in matter of days. Three simple ways to strengthen yours.

What a difference three days can make.

CrossFit is a multi-billion-dollar fitness brand. On June 7th, Greg Glassman, the founder and CEO of CrossFit, tweeted an apology. “I made a mistake by the words I chose yesterday. My heart is deeply saddened by the pain it has caused. It was a mistake, not racist but a mistake.”

What was Glassman’s mistake? The day before, Glassman replied to a tweet from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). IHME had posted, “Racism is a public health issue.” Glassman’s reply read: “It’s FLOYD-19”.

Glassman’s apology may have been an attempt at damage control.  After the June 6th tweet, Reebok, CrossFit’s biggest sponsor, pulled the plug on future sponsorship. Hundreds of CrossFit affiliate gyms also announced they would end working with the brand.

Meanwhile, it turned out that the June 6th “mistake” wasn’t an isolated incident. Days later, BuzzFeed received an anonymous tip. The tip was a 75-minute recorded Zoom meeting (also on June 6th) between some CrossFit affiliate gym owners and the executive leadership team. On the recording, Glassman is asked why CrossFit hadn’t posted a statement about the protests after the death of George Floyd.

Glassman’s recorded response: “We’re not mourning for George Floyd — I don’t think me or any of my staff are. Can you tell me why I should mourn for him? Other than that it’s the white thing to do — other than that, give me another reason.”  BuzzFeed released the recording on June 9th. Glassman resigned as CEO later that day.

The final three days of Glassman’s leadership offer a lesson for leaders everywhere. The defining characteristic of leadership today is transparency. Every move you make, every breath you take, the people you lead are watching you.

The scrutiny comes with the territory. It’s not just you. This happens to all leaders. It’s a natural biological result of evolution. As social animals, this what all higher-order primates do. Harvard University Press editor and author Julia Kirby noted that when apes and monkeys are “threatened, subordinates glance obsessively toward the group leader, looking for indications of how to respond.”[i] In fact, even when they’re not in danger, baboons continue to conduct “a visual check on their alpha male two or three times per minute.”[ii]

Like it or not, leaders live in a clear fishbowl. While you shouldn’t take the scrutiny personally, you should take the consequences of it very personally. Because people see every move you make, you’ll want to make sure you’re making the right moves.

With technology today, everything you do leaves a digital footprint. Everyone you work with is not just a coworker, supplier or customer, they’re also a potential confidential source or front-line journalist. Remember how Susan Fowler’s blogpost started the dominoes that toppled the leadership at Uber? Or the fiasco at United Airlines in April of 2017 when one passenger filmed another passenger being forcibly dragged from an airplane? Most vividly, consider the massive global impact created by Darnella Frazier, a 17-year-old high school student in Minneapolis. She’s the one who filmed and uploaded the video of the fatal arrest of George Floyd.

Transparency is here to stay. The hallmark of the information age is the shift from a paradigm of information asymmetry (where a select few hoard information) to information symmetry (where everyone has equal access to information).

In the age of transparency, command and control leadership loses its iron grip. Today, people have options. For example, if employees are unhappy at work, they can take their valuable skills and easily go somewhere else. A few clicks on LinkedIn and Glassdoor reveal greener pastures. They don’t have to put up with lousy leadership that was the norm a couple of generations ago.

In a world with so many options, leadership influence can’t be assumed. It must be earned. Credibility is the foundation on which this influence gets built.

For people to truly follow you, they must believe you’re worth following. Building credibility is a conscious choice. There are three key principles to be acted upon to strengthen your credibility: Show up on time, do what you say will do and be consistent.

1. Show Up on Time

Timeliness is the easiest and most visible thing in the world to measure. You’re either here or you’re not. Being on time upholds the most basic social contract: Your presence.

Lateness is about much more than just a few wasted minutes. When you’re late, your behavior sends a clear message: Other things are more important than being here with you. When you’re on time, your action sends a message that you value the other person.

In addition, showing up on time creates a halo effect. Whether we like it or not, when people are on time, it creates a positive impression about their character. Conversely, when people are late, doubts form about other parts of their competence.

2. Do What You Say You Will Do

Accountability is a leadership buzzword, but what does it really mean? Accountability comes from the field of accounting. In finance, the two sides of the balance sheet (assets and liabilities) need to equal each other to be “in account.”

In leadership, the two sides of the balance sheet are “What You Say You’ll Do” and “What You Actually Did.” When you do what you say you will do, the two sides balance out. You’re accountable. Each accountable action boosts your credibility.

Being perpetually alert to what you do and say is one of the most important habits for leaders to cultivate. Self-awareness takes work. Moreover, it’s not enough just to be mindful of all that you do and say. It’s also important to be attentive to what you don’t do and don’t say. After all, non-behavior also sends a message, and it also gets put under the microscope. Glassman’s credibility was questioned because of what he hadn’t done or said in relation to George Floyd’s death.

Smart leaders understand that transparency brings greater accountability. People are watching you to see if you walk your talk. Then they decide if your walk is on a path that they want to follow.

3. Be Consistent

Consistency is the practice of doing what you say you will do repeated multiple times, over an extended period. When you repeatedly practice what you preach, you send the message that you are someone who can be counted on.

Susan is the CEO of a retail organization. She’s been CEO for over 20 years. The company is divided into 100 Regions around the U.S., and each region of 5-8 stores has its own regional manager.

During her tenure, Susan has created a regional manager (RM) ritual: the Regional Review. Once a year, each Regional Manager meets with Susan. To prepare for the meeting (the Regional Review), the RM creates a report on the state of their business: how their stores have performed against all the company metrics, what things that have gone well, future market opportunities, areas for improvement, etc.

Each Regional Review with Susan lasts between 2-3 hours. Susan meets with every one of the hundred RMs every year. Altogether, that’s over 250 hours in reviews. More than six weeks of Susan’s year is spent on this ritual.

Susan’s consistent actions create her credibility. Susan’s commitment to develop her team is reciprocated in their commitment to the company. More than half of the RMs have been with the company for over 15 years, and most of them have been promoted from within.

Now, more than ever, credibility is the foundation of effective leadership. Your credibility only exists insofar as others believe in you. Credibility isn’t built in an instant. It takes time to earn and can be destroyed in a moment.

Thankfully, credibility isn’t a mystical innate quality. Credible leaders are made, not born. They’re made by practicing small habits over and over.

Be on time. Do what you say you’ll do. Be consistent. These are the small things that become big things. Work at these diligently, and watch your credibility and influence grow exponentially.

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[i] Julia Kirby, “Beware the Baboon Boss,” Harvard Business Review, May 22, 2009, https://hbr.org/2009/05/baboons.

[ii] Ibid.

Alain Hunkins
Alain Hunkins, author of Cracking the Leadership Code: Three Secrets to Building Strong Leaders (Wiley, March 2020) is a sought-after speaker, consultant, trainer, and coach. Over his twenty-year career, Alain has designed and facilitated seminars on numerous leadership topics, including teambuilding, communication, peak performance, innovation, and change. His clients include Wal-Mart, Pfizer, Citigroup, IBM, General Motors, and Microsoft