The Challenge to Leadership in a Viral-Video World

Incidents where a CEO’s bad behavior was caught on tape (or tweet) have put more scrutiny on execs. How do you practice fearless leadership while everyone’s watching?

Leaders, as a general rule, understand that their words have consequences. Corporate CEOs know that markets move based on what they say on shareholder conference calls. Association execs recognize that communication miscues can lead to vocal criticism from members.

But what words, in what contexts, are relevant when it comes to assessing a CEO? The answer increasingly seems to be: All of them, in all contexts.

I bring this up in the aftermath of a much-reported and ugly shouting match that occurred earlier this month between KB Homes CEO Jeffrey Mezger and his neighbor, comedian Kathy Griffin. The details, profanity and all, are just a click or two away if you care to experience them. But I’m less interested in the incident per se than what it’s meant for Mezger—and what that, perhaps, means for leaders in general. KB Homes’ board took the unusual step of docking Mezger’s bonus 25 percent, and saying he’ll be fired if there’s a “similar incident.

Life is not fair, and the media are always looking for irony.

Mezger is not alone in facing scrutiny in the wake of a social-media-driven scrum. A cybersecurity CEO resigned after ranting online about the last presidential election, and former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick experienced blowback after a viral rant to a driver earlier this year, which is why he’s now a “former” CEO.

Governance experts have said that the cases of Mezger and others are a function of high executive compensation. “”If you’re willing to accept that kind of money, you’re giving something up, and it’s the separation of your private life and your public life,” the University of Delaware’s Charles Elson told the Washington Post. I’m not convinced that compensation the only issue at play, though. Now that social media is all-pervasive and people feel increasingly comfortable making their complaints loudly and directly to people in charge, announcing oneself as a “leader” of any sort online is to become a target for scrutiny.

The Badge Is Always On

Look: Swearing at a neighbor or snarking off at an employee is bad form in any circumstance, whether or not it’s recorded and shared online. Mezger’s case is cut-and-dried, but not all are. And these recent incidents brought me back to something association attorney Paula Cozzi Goedert wrote for the Associations Now Volunteer Leadership Issue in 2011 about how leaders should tread carefully, especially in a media-soaked age.

“Life is not fair, and the media are always looking for irony,” she wrote. “Anything posted on any social network can be copied and disseminated, right into the hands of the very people you would least like to see it. Here is the only safe rule to follow during your tenure as an organization leader: The badge is always on. Remember that plastic badge they give you to wear during meetings? You never take it off.”

I confess that when Goedert’s article crossed my desk for editing six year ago, that statement sounded overly severe. It seemed to risk validating associations’ slowness at the time to get with the program when it came to social media—executives at the time delivered all sorts of reasons not to blog or use Twitter and Facebook, from lack of time to fear of legal action. For the most part, associations today recognize that an online presence is essential, and even if CEOs aren’t doing the tweeting, they know that their faces on videos and other posts have value when it comes to delivering an association’s message.

But what few quite anticipated back then is the scenario Goedert hinted at—that not only does social media provide the opportunity to scrutinize leaders, but to distribute criticism quickly. And if that involves your unscripted faux pas or loss of temper? It makes no difference. The badge is always on because smartphones, and their cameras, are always on.

What’s In That Contract?

To be clear: There isn’t a crisis of association executives behaving badly, or for being ousted for it. Nor should any of this be confused for a recommendation that associations be more timid, especially when it comes to speaking out against actions or policies that run counter to their mission. Fearlessness is part of the gig. But recent CEO incidents should underscore an important point: Observers often don’t make a distinction between your personal actions and the actions of the organization you lead.

Bad behavior—and boards addressing it—are nothing new. “Many sample contracts have some sort of behavior cause built into their termination clause,” as Glenn Tecker of Tecker International points out. That’s usually considered boilerplate stuff, but that negligible boilerplate material has a funny way of emerging as very relevant in a crisis. And the definition of a “crisis” is bigger these days.

What do you do organizationally or personally to recognize and address criticism online? Share your experiences in the comments.

(blossomstar/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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