I’ve seen some pretty serious messes occur when leaders forgot a very simple principle. That principle is this: There is a difference between what we say in the living room and what we say in the bedroom.
There are things Bev and I will say in front of friends. There are things we’ll say in front of complete strangers. But there are many things we say only to each other and only in private. This is what I broadly call our “bedroom talk.” Yes, this category includes romantic things but it is far beyond that. It is also about our money or which one of our kids we are concerned about or a health matter or how we are feeling about one of our projects. These are private things. They are usually expressed in shorthand. Incomplete thoughts are allowed. Later updates are permitted. All ponderings are works in progress.
None of this is shared. It’s too informal. Too raw at times. Too personal. Too not anyone else’s business.
Yet I’m finding that in our full disclosure society leaders often betray the private to their detriment. They sometimes lack the sense of propriety and the governors to protect the tender and deeply personal from the glare of the public. It doesn’t serve them well.
I can name hundreds of examples. Here are a few.
- That huge Pentecostal church I consulted with needed to talk publicly about its stellar work with the poor but keep its beliefs about speaking in tongues to itself. No one at ABC or CNN was likely to understand.
- The small souls on that non-profit’s board felt bigger when they talked about the executive director’s negatives, but all such talk did was sour staff and volunteers and damage the organization.
- That general with the Ivy League degree loved to talk about the debates that led to policy, but it was all way over the heads of the troops who just wanted to know what to do and when to do it—not that there was ever any difference of opinion about it all. It scared them to know that two commanders disagreed. They needed one, authoritative voice.
- The coach that would gripe to his linemen about arguments with the other coaches and the head coach didn’t do himself any favors. All he did was reduce the motivation of his squad, thus reducing performance and his own standing. A united front and total command would have served him better.
I am of course not suggesting that we lie or that we conceal what we are obligated legally and ethically to make known. I am suggesting that many leaders feel themselves more authentic when they disclose all. It ain’t so. I’ve worked with some amazing leaders in my life. The powerful ones told me what I needed to know, coached me in how to do it well, and took me into their confidence to the degree needed. They held much in reserve. It was their burden not mine. I loved them for it.
I’ll have to say that I’ve also worked with leaders who were like chatty little girls. They burdened everyone with everything they heard and thought. Leading was therapy for them and it didn’t matter what effect it all had on those around them.
Lead well. Separate the living room from the bedroom. Tell people what they need to know but not what you need to unburden. Don’t confuse leadership and therapy. You’ll see great results if you do.