Leadership Caffeine™-Does Your Do Match Your Tell?

Leadership CaffeineFresh on the heels of my remarkably fun and productive collaboration with Mary Jo Asmus of Intentional Leadership on “The Words of a Leader, I feel duty bound to remind you that while words are indeed powerful tools for creation or destruction, it’s your actions that will seal your fate as a leader.  Or rather, how well your actions and your words match.

Only the Paranoid Survive to Lead Effectively:

With apologies to Andy Grove for truly misappropriating and slightly twisting the title of his great book (Only the Paranoid Survive), in this case, it’s true.

Everyone IS watching you and they are all passing judgment on your credibility as a leader.  Constantly.  Constantly that is, until they find you guilty of failing the test of credibility and they shift into compliance mode.  You’re finished as a leader at this point.

More Practical Lessons in Leadership:

When Rich Petro and I were talking with leaders of all types and levels for Practical Lessons in Leadership, we truly wanted to understand what contributed to a person being perceived as a “credible” leader—someone that people trusted and put faith in to follow.

The answers from our interview subjects came fast and were surprisingly consistent.  They had little to do with how articulate the leader was or how well he or she could paint a picture of a glorious new future.

Rather, the answers consistently focused on whether the words of the leader were backed by actions that supported those words. Any dissonance between the words and the actions was clearly identified by our interview subjects as credibility killers.

I loved the way one mid-level manager put it: “The do must match the tell.”

Simply and powerfully stated.

Opportunities to Watch Out for Your Do and Tell:

It might shock you to realize how many times per day you face little moments of truth where your “Do and Tell” are being judged.  Here are some all too common examples of self destruction by the leader’s own dissonant behaviors:

  • Issues of Accountability: it’s hard to be credible after preaching accountability but failing to deal with performance issues and poor performers. Your “Do” is showing and lacking here.
  • The Jordan Rules: Star players contribute to championship teams, but if you’ve got two sets of rules…one for the star(s) and one for everyone else, your credibility is in trouble.
  • The Closed Open Door: Enough with that “I’ve got an open door policy,” as you remain huddled behind a slab of oak that only opens to toss out a body after you shoot the messenger who stepped through the door on a rare occasion when it was open.
  • The “Work harder so I can relax more” pitch: I love the characters that show up to harangue or implore the troops to push harder and then head out for long lunches or another in a nearly endless string of exotic vacations.
  • The “Take Risks, Be Bold and Learn from Mistakes,” preacher:  “Just not on my watch,” say their actions…as yet another formerly bold body gets tossed out of the rarely open door.
  • The “That’s an important topic and we should talk about it at the right time,” manager: It’s never  the right time.

The Bottom Line:

Watch out for the “Do and Tell” traps that snare so many leaders.  Even the small situations…the exceptions and the odd circumstances will be viewed through the lens of credibility and judged accordingly.  You don’t want to be caught with your “Do clashing with your Tell.”

By | 2016-10-22T17:12:02+00:00 September 13th, 2009|Career, Leadership, Leadership Caffeine|16 Comments

About the Author:

Art Petty is a coach, speaker and workshop presenter focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. When he is not speaking, Art serves senior executives, business owners and high potential professionals as a coach and strategy advisor. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.


  1. Loren Loiseau September 14, 2009 at 1:05 pm - Reply

    Nice article and I am glad you are sounding out on leadership. Business needs this continual drumbeat towards honest, ethical and effecctive leadership skills.

    One thing to add: remember that less can be more. It is tempting as a leader to constantly remind folks of many issues rather than focusing on a few. When a leader focus on more issues, they set themselves up for some of the traps you mention in your article.

  2. Nick Halen September 14, 2009 at 1:21 pm - Reply

    As a leader you are always under the radar. The hard part about always being under the radar is the job of being a leader that does what he says never ends. When I am at work it is obviously way important to practice what you preach, but it is also important to practice when you are not at work. Not only do people never stop judging you or stop watching you, but I have found that you have to train yourself at all times in order for it to come naturally. I think this was a great reminder of how a leader should handle them self.


  3. Steven M. Smith September 14, 2009 at 1:31 pm - Reply

    Art, The post starts with reference to the “words of a leader.” I’m struggling with the word “tell” in this post. It seems to be a popular word in leadership circles. And its popularity bothers me.

    I agree with you about the importance of leaders following through on the their words with corresponding actions. The leaders words don’t have to be the elements of a lecture (tell) though — they can be the elements of a conversation (discuss). And even better when he words are elements of an agreement (negotiation) made between the members of a team.

    I think the it’s catchy to say, “The do must match the tell.” I think it’s powerful to say, “Our actions must flow and follow from our agreements.”

    A leader who believe agreement isn’t necessary creates an environment where their followers’ actions may deviate from the leader’s desires (words) whenever a follower has a different desire and they are free to choose.

    Leadership is about creating an environment where the words and actions of every member of the team harmonize and move in the right direction. IME, that happens better through conversation and agreements rather than lectures and rules.

  4. Mark Allen Roberts September 14, 2009 at 2:26 pm - Reply

    Great content,

    Enjoyed the “tell” …

    (Note to self, no poker with Art Petty.)

    I have also heard it refered to as the “shadow” a leader casts. Often your actions speak so loud I can’t hear what you are saying, or asking me to do.

    Mark Allen Roberts

  5. Wally Bock September 14, 2009 at 2:52 pm - Reply

    In my Working Supervisor’s Support Kit and elsewhere, beat on this drum, Art. If your words and actions match, you build trust. That includes keeping your commitments. But if you’ve got a mismatch, two things happen. First, people will believe what you do, not what you say. And, second, the level of trust you might have had drops like a stone.

  6. Mark D. Cohen September 14, 2009 at 4:06 pm - Reply


    Great article on the pitfalls to avoid in order to become a credible leader. I have had a supervisor instruct us to be civil at all times while constantly shouting at us when we make mistakes. Her credibility was lost immediately by everyone, and we shifted into “compliance” mode.

    In my opinion, the most important opportunity you mention is “Issues of Accountability.” When a leader stresses that something is important, but does not enforce consequences for failures in that specific issue, all credibility as a leader is lost.

    Furthermore, “Take Risks, Be Bold, and Learn from Mistakes” holds special significance for me because I have had supervisors quash any attempts at improving inefficient and poor-running systems. In addition, it is hard to learn from mistakes when a supervisor yells at you instead of advising you how to improve.

    Very helpful article.


  7. Becky Robinson September 15, 2009 at 4:24 am - Reply

    Another great post, Art. About your idea that everyone is watching until you lose your credibility, and then you’re done as a leader in their eyes. I agree with you — mostly — of course, it is important for your actions to meet up with your words. If you say you are going to do something — do it! I also think that humble leaders who admit their mistakes can rebuild credibility and influence.

  8. Art Petty September 15, 2009 at 5:55 am - Reply

    Thanks to all for your comments!

    Loren, I like the “less can be more” reminder. Thanks.

    Nick, excellent reminder that the leader is always “on the job.”

    Steven, some good wisdom as always…especially on the “environment.”

    Wally, your Supervisors Support Kit is a must for people in that role looking for great guidance and action oriented suggestions.

    Mark,I love the “shadow of a leader” statement/imagery. Thanks!

    Mark C. , thanks for sharing your powerful examples. The visual of a supervisor preaching civility and then doing the opposite is powerful…and sad. And I agree w. you on the accountability topic.

    And Becky, thanks for mostly agreeing! : ) I’ll opt for mostly the negative on the “rebuild” issue.

    Thanks to all!


  9. Elaine Hirt September 15, 2009 at 3:39 pm - Reply

    Art–When Bret Simmons asked us in our first class, “What do you want?” I replied, “I want people to be straight.” Bret said, “Wow! You want a lot. I’ll be straight with you.” He asked what I wanted. So I went for The Big One.

    Integrity is so HUGE. Our word is all we have in life regardless if it is in the workplace, at home, at school, at church, at the store. It doesn’t matter where you are…if your words don’t match your actions; if your relationships are breaking down, check your integrity. If your integrity is out, clean it up. Be responsible for your words not matching your actions. This restores integrity.

    Integrity makes relationships work. No integrity. No workability. No relationship.

    This applies to everyone, not just leaders.
    Thank you for bringing up a very integral subject to working relationships. It is very much appreciated!

  10. Art Petty September 16, 2009 at 9:00 am - Reply

    Elaine, I wish I would have said it as eloquently and passionately as you! Thanks. -Art

  11. Three Star Leadership Blog September 16, 2009 at 1:28 pm - Reply

    9/16/09: Midweek Look at the Independent Business Blogs…

    Every week I select five excellent posts from this week’s independent business blogs. This week, I’m pointing you to posts on Dan Pink’s TED talk, going one more step for innovation, systemic thinking and why you need it, leading by saying no, and w…

  12. Wally Bock September 16, 2009 at 1:55 pm - Reply

    Congratulations! This post was selected as one of the five best independent business blog posts of the week in my Three Star Leadership Midweek Review of the Business Blogs.


    Wally Bock

  13. Elaine Hirt September 16, 2009 at 9:56 pm - Reply

    Thank you Art for your kind words. That makes me smile.

    And a big thank you to Landmark Education for teaching me how vital my word is to my relationships and my working well.


  14. Pete Scully September 19, 2009 at 5:54 am - Reply


    Great article, that is relevant for Leaders at all levels of an organization. To boil it down to closing the gaps between actions and words is a simple but effective way of communicating the message about the importance of Integrity to Leadership.

    Well done!


  15. Steve J September 21, 2009 at 11:05 am - Reply

    Great post, very, very true and astonishing how little it is understood by most in leadership positions. Great comments as well, trust by the team of the leader is so hard to win and so very easy to lose. Without trust you might get compliance but you will never have leadership of an organization. We all lead by example, the only question is what kind of example are you going to set today and every day after?

  16. Paul Roemer September 22, 2009 at 11:13 am - Reply

    Walk the talk, love it.

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