The unspoken messages of leadership

"We must be the change we wish to see."  - Mahatma Gandhi

Added by Tricia Scott, March 2011.

People are influenced by what they see in their leaders. This encompasses not just the official, but also the incidental messages a leader communicates; from seeing a leader behave with restraint in a difficult situation, to a smile or a look when the person is not aware of being observed. And by implication this can communicate the preferences and beliefs of an organisation’s leadership.

In a previous role, I undertook an environmental audit for a girls’ boarding school. The school and its grounds are beautiful, and throughout there is evidence both of the pride the school takes in its pupils, and the pride its pupils have in being part of the school. But in one respect the school had veered away from this identity.

The school participates in national objectives for reducing waste by encouraging recycling, and in each room there were one or more receptacles for collecting recyclable materials. But the way in which this was organised was jarringly incongruous with the presumed intention of the initiative. The recycling bins were open, plastic crates – cheap, scruffy and unattractive.

The pupils rarely used the recycling bins. Perhaps the fact that they sat in total contrast to everything else in the school effectively communicated the message that the school didn’t really regard recycling as a worthwhile behaviour.

As a result, what was probably done as a cost-saving measure was costing the school money: since charges for collection of recyclables are lower than for waste collection, the school could have been saving more every month than the cost of bins which would have been in keeping with the general atmosphere of the school.

The unspoken messages of any organisation have a significant bearing on its behaviour, culture and identity, particularly in times of change. What is the impact of the unspoken messages of the leadership at your institution?


Topics: Leadership.

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"What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say."

In this short video (2:20) Andy Friere, Co-founder and CEO of Axialent, argues that what leaders do - not what they say - defines the organization's culture. Friere suggests that most leaders are not actually aware of how what they do is perceived and shapes culture.