There has been much critical coverage of the ‘selfie’ taken by Helle Thorning-Schmidt with a grinning Barack Obama and David Cameron leaning in. Being caught in the act also enabled the mischievous to create ribald exchanges on the Internet that spread like wildfire. Oh dear! Leadership gaffe or just a case of media salaciousness?
First, let us acknowledge the regrettable state of affairs whereby few men are judged on their appearance, while few women are not. Thus, an attractive women in a leadership position becomes unfair game for smutty speculation while Obama and Cameron are simply criticised for inappropriate behaviour. Would there have been as much coverage if the selfie had been with another male leader, or someone less attractive that Helle Thorning-Schmidt?
Second, the incident serves to remind us that, as a leader, we are more noticeable that others. Leadership means being visible in a way that other people are not – people take an interest in those that seek to influence them. The opportunities for gaffes are therefore more numerous.
This is not to say that observing the private lives of leaders is wrong. In some cases, such insight is important as they reveal traits that affect people’s potential for good leadership. The case of Paul Flowers springs to mind here. Sometimes, such insights help reveal the human face of leaders, which can be equally important in a positive sense. In other cases, it is an unwarranted intrusion that exposes private matters that are none of our business.
Here,the important issue is not about intrusion, whether leaders should have fun, or appropriate behaviour at funerals. It is much more that those seeking to influence also need to demonstrate serious intent. Without such demonstrations, people will wonder what they stand for, what’s ‘right and wrong’ behaviour in the organisation, and what the organisation itself is trying to achieve.
As a leader, we should be wary of self-indulgence that sends the wrong messages, but should also ask ourselves:
What shall I do tomorrow that reinforces something important for the organisation?
Unconscious or thoughtless action can get us into trouble, but lack of thoughtful action can be equally as bad.