Children seldom misquote you. In fact, they more often than not repeat exactly what you shouldn’t have said.

In response to the Sunday School (what a terrible name for any freedom loving kid! – it should have been ditched decades ago) teacher’s question of who in the class would like to stand up and repeat the Bible verse they had learnt, Keegan’s hand flashed into the air. Confidently, he took his place in front of his attentive inmates, er . . . classmates.

‘The boy stood on the burning deck,

Whence all but he had fled.

 Twit.’

Before any of the wardens could interject, he launched into another ‘verse’ for his appreciative audience:

‘I must go down to the sea again,

 to the lonely sea and sky;

 Where I left my scants and socks,

 I wonder if they are dry?’

By this time the youngest and nimblest of the wardens had reached him and was able to put a stop to any further verses that would poison impressionable young minds. This single act of intervention was most likely responsible for keeping Keegan off any Christian Taliban hit list and which meant we have not had to go into any witness protection programme.

This was not an isolated incident, a fact that strengthens my case. During a church family camp to which I happened to be invited there was a concert on the Saturday night. I was sitting next to a couple who proudly informed me that the young boy, no more than seven years old, making his way on to the stage was their son. I sat back, glowing in the reflected glory of the radiant parents who were now telling anyone within earshot that the boy about to ascend the stage was their son. As parents and groupies settled back expectantly, the master of ceremonies announced that the boy would recite several verses from the Bible. With their spontaneous PR exercise to the surrounding community accomplished, you could almost hear the purr of the proud parents who were about to collect on their efforts to instill in their offspring correct moral values through the teaching of biblical verses.

Now I think I have a reasonable grasp of what is and what is not in the Bible but when the lad started with, ‘There was a South African, an Australian and a blonde on a train . . .’ I must confess that my biblical Google ‘I feel lucky’ search drew a blank. It took some time before the proud smile slipped from his parents’ face, paralleled by the smirks that began to appear on the face of an audience that sensed something memorable was about to happen. By this time the young comedian was well into a joke that was certainly not fit for the occasion. As horror gripped the bloodline of two in the audience, the raunchy joke played itself out to an otherwise appreciative, if somewhat shocked crowd. Certainly there was an almost palpable ‘thank-goodness-he-is-not-one-of-ours’ feeling among many who had witnessed what would no doubt become a tale approaching urban legend proportions.

The earlier PR exercise, which seemed a good idea at the time, had ensured that there was no place to hide and feeble explanations blaming friends, school and Barney were mumbled to anyone who would listen. I still think it was the highlight of what was otherwise a fairly dull event.

Leaders can be sure that at times others will unwittingly (or maybe not) ape both their words and their behaviour. It is part of the responsibility that those in leadership must accept. It goes with the job. Trying the approach of ‘do as I say and not as I do’ will not work. Unfortunately there are many leaders who live out that flawed maxim, using their position and authority to forge the way rather than bringing alignment between what they say and what they do.

I was once involved in a series of teambuilding workshops spread out over several weeks with a new executive team of a large corporation. During this time a colleague of mine happened to bump into the CEO and one of the team members at the airport. To his amazement, when they boarded the same flight the CEO sat in business class while the team member made his way through to the economy class where my colleague was sitting. That is no way to build a team. Whatever the rationale – and I’m sure there would be some ‘logic’ to it – that kind of corporate behaviour spotlights the gap between the talk and the action. What amazes me, both in this specific example and in this kind of behaviour in general, is just how oblivious leaders seem to be to the contradiction at work.

Creating and guarding corporate hierarchies is something of the past. The younger generations (Generations X and Y), as and when they enter the workplace, will neither understand nor respond to such artificial divisions of status. Adjusting to this reality is a challenge to those who seek to maintain them.

Closing the gap between what you say you are and what you really are requires consistent feedback and no small amount of emotional maturity and intelligence. All too often the feedback structures we have so meticulously constructed within our corporate environments conspire against the very reason for their existence. As people learn to ‘play the game’, manipulate the system and hide behind the respective feedback and performance review facades, authentic feedback gets lost – or is simply not heard. When that happens personal and corporate growth is stalled. Perhaps the best way to check how your words match your action is simply to ask someone . . . really asks someone. Determine to avoid any knee-jerk defensive response and be ready to hear something you don’t necessarily agree with or even like. Therein sits the discovery of the hidden pearl. Treasure it, polish it and turn it into something of beauty. As you do so you can be sure that others will notice, but that is not the reason for doing it, it is merely a by-product of the process.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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