I have seen many rising leaders attach, or closely align themselves to an executive they report to and become the executives “right-hand-man”. While doing so can be very helpful to a rising leader, especially if the executive is respected and successful, doing so comes with risk.
So, what does that “attachment” or alignment look like? From the outsider’s perspective, there are behaviors that can give the perceptions of close alignment between a boss and direct report. Some behaviors are more obvious. Attending most meetings together. Consistently sitting next to each other (when we’re in the office). Always agreeing without questions or critical thinking. Continuously referring and deferring to each other. And the obvious “brown-nosing”.
Some behaviors are more subtle but can be just as impactful. If the boss and direct report are known to socialize a lot or spend time with each other’s families. Sharing inside jokes, or nonverbal cues of acknowledgement or agreement. Appearing to have a dependency on each other for decisions and/or support.
Why is it risky to align too much with a boss or another leader? Perceptions and assumptions based on those perceptions has a lot to do with it. By aligning or attaching ourselves too much to another leader, it can appear as a lack of confidence to stand on our own. Others may make assumptions about our opinions, actions or decisions based on what the other leader does. Assumed loyalties to one leader could hurt the trust of other leaders. When that leader leaves, the incumbent may not trust us.
Following the old adage, we are judged by the company we keep. If the leader we’re close to falls out of favor for any reason, it could impact the perceptions of ourselves. If the leader we’re closely aligned with is accused of bad behavior, we could be implicated, as well. I’ve seen this happen more than once and it happens all the time in politics. I’ve seen executives lose their jobs for the bad behaviors of their bosses or leaders they were closely aligned with. Those bad behaviors have included sex or racial discrimination, sexual harassment, and the misuse of company funds. Even if we were not involved, there could be assumptions made that we had knowledge of the bad behavior and didn’t report it.
So, how do we show appropriate, functional alignment with our bosses or another leader and avoid any perceptions and the possible pitfalls of being too aligned? Here are some suggestions:
- Don’t spend too much time together in the office (when we’re back in the office)
- Be discreet about any socializing or relationships with each other’s’ families
- Show your independence by having your own thoughts, opinions, ideas and decisions
- Be comfortable with disagreeing with the boss or leader, and communicate it in appropriate ways
- Use your own voice without having to reference your boss. For example, communicate decisions without having to say “the boss wants it this way”
- Don’t “brown nose” with an overuse of accolades, agreements, flattery and favors
- Don’t ride someone else’s coat tails. It will undermine your abilities and leadership.