Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Preserving the Image

I often quote Charles De Gaulle in my coaching sessions. (It may seem strange, but my clients are used to it.)

When asked about his efforts to maintain his image, De Gaulle once said, "There are many things I would have liked to do but could not, for they would not have been fitting for General De Gaulle."

I use that observation to urge a level of discretion; an appreciation that leaders are not running their own shows but have a larger group of stakeholders.

At the same time, however, the General's point applies to guarding and demanding a certain level of respect. De Gaulle, while leading the Free French during World War II, knew the limits of his forces. That awareness made him all the more zealous in his efforts to preserve the image, hollow at the time, that he represented a major force. Whereas he might have readily conceded points had he more power, he believed his limited resources required him to demand the respect due the head of a great nation lest his remaining power quickly disappear.

Fighting to protect an image can be a tough call. You don't want to appear petty or egotistical. De Gaulle's advantage was that his efforts to protect France's role were understandable. Although many critics would speak of De Gaulle's ego - which was considerable - the more knowledgeable ones were aware of the larger purpose in his behavior. In short, he did not defend his status because of a strictly personal desire but because he knew it was necessary to achieve his mission, the preservation of France. He knew that, at that time, he was France.

And that raises the question of when it is wise to guard what may seem to be minor, ego-related items in the workplace. Few people will admit to a small, strictly status-enhancing, purpose. They will claim that the corner office is necessary for some larger good. Or they need an expensive company car. Or a driver. Or better office furniture.

The answer may be found by considering whether the person both needs and deserves the extra status. You need not save a nation to deserve a lot of respect, but there should be a high level of demonstrated competence or all of the gold will turn to tarnished brass. At the same time, if you completely ignore the significance of image, you will have bypassed a source of real power, and legions of individuals who don't know your true worth may underestimate it.

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