Experts Beware: Practice What You Preach

Let’s say that there is a particular leadership expert whose work you have admired for many years. You have consumed this person’s content across various mediums and refer to it often for inspiration. Then one day, you find that the person that you so highly revered has actually been accused of abusing his power to sexually exploit women. Despite your initial shock, the women’s claims turn out to be accurate. Would you ever read another word of this leadership expert’s work? How would you view the insights that you previously learned from this person?

Many individuals who adhered to Bill Hybels’ wisdom are currently grappling with these questions. Hybels is the founding pastor of one of the biggest churches in the United States (Willow Creek Community Church), has written numerous books on leadership, advised many notable individuals such as President Bill Clinton and for years hosted a leadership conference that attracted many well known guest speakers and thousands of attendees. Hybels was forced to resign after a series of allegations in which he sexually exploited different women.

Some might be able to separate Hybels’ actions from his work and still find wisdom in his books, sermons and other content. However, I would think the overwhelming majority would never seek out his knowledge in any way again. I am generally leery of any pastor of a mega church and never consumed any of Hybels’ work. However, if I did, I would certainly be one of those individuals to disregard anything he ever said and throw away any remnants of books and other collateral.

Leadership guru or fraud?
Much of my work focuses on communicating key messages related to one’s expertise. The Bill Hybels tragedy is a reminder to me that any great reputation stemming from effective communications can be for naught if there is a significant disconnect between words and actions. I think this is particularly true for spiritual advisers and leadership experts. It just feels so wrong and icky when we see such a gap between what they are advocating for and how they are living.

I have collaborated with many great leadership minds, both in my full-time work at two top-ranking business schools and now as a consultant in which I have worked with some 25 different clients in the higher education / leadership development space. I have learned a great amount from most of these leadership experts. The majority have been a pleasure to work with. But there have been some exceptions. Take for example the individual who used his negotiation skills to manipulate lower-level employees. Or the leadership expert who always seemed be causing drama and stirring up trouble at work to draw attention to him. There have been individuals I have witnessed who have lots to say about ethics, yet they seem to be doing things that don’t personify such behavior in their own actions.

Application for all of us
We all need to be consistent in what we communicate and how we actually live this out. I keep this in mind as it relates to my work. I want to make sure that I am actually disseminating clear messages as someone selling communications expertise. I try to make sure that all my communications – whether it be a public blog post for a media outlet or an email to a colleague – doesn’t include any typos. Surely I make mistakes and when I do come across a typo, it really bothers me. I am not being true to what I want my brand to represent. (Of course there is a huge distinction between human error and major moral failures, but still…..).

We live in a digital communications space in which transparency is expected. Everyone can be a fact checker and reporter, analyzing your work and recording your actions with their smartphones even without your knowledge that this is taking place. You might have done the most amazing research, worked with some of the most interesting organizations and be an amazing communicator. A few bad actions can destroy all of this. Are you practicing what you preach?

This article was written by Kevin Anselmo, the founder of Experiential Communications and the creator of the Research Translation Writing online course