Free to be you and me?
The news last week was filled with stories of leaders who cursed for effect, or who curse regularly, each defending and embracing the right to do so, in the name of authenticity. Take LinkedIn contributor Gary Vaynerchuk, Chairman of VaynerX and CEO of Vayner Media, who posted a video stating that unapologetic cursing is a right he claims for himself, one that signals how deeply he cares about a given subject. Many commenters to his post agreed that this was an aspect of themselves they, too, had learned to embrace— let others think what they would of them. I believe curse words have only the power you give them, and I admire these leaders' fierce commitment to being true to themselves.
On the other hand, we live and work in a multicultural society where use of these words carries different weight among different populations- impacted by region, education, economic status, and religious beliefs. I wonder if this particular entitlement — take me just as I am — is a privilege conferred only to select leaders, in select circumstances. Gary is an accomplished CEO, a business leader, a white male. Consider Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American Muslim female, just elected to the most diverse Congress in history. She claimed and defended her right to use arguably one of the most profane words in the English language to characterize POTUS on her way to Washington to be sworn in to elected office. Her audience was the folks who’d elected her, and she leveraged choice words for strategic effect in front of her base. She feels empowered by her elected leadership role to speak openly, fiercely, and passionately on behalf of her constituents, just as the President has done repeatedly. Her language drew Republican ire, infuriated religious conservatives and fanned racist rhetoric, much like the President's rhetoric has done previously. The POTUS has called her words "disgraceful" and "a great dishonor to her family." The POTUS' own rhetoric has long been considered race-baiting, and he has audaciously used the very same term used by Tlaib with his own supporters on the campaign trail. He continues to pepper his conversations with profane language in front of-, about-, and to- White House employees, members of Congress, and who knows who else. He's the most senior and most visible leader of the United States, and this is how he chooses to lead.
Now imagine, if you will, a black colleague asserting themself thru profanity at work to alleviate pressure, express justified anger or frustration, convey the depth of their disappointment, passion, or outrage toward a situation, or about peers, colleagues, or business partners. Would that leader be permitted to speak as freely and transparently as they desired? Without consequence? Research and persistent stereotypes of the “angry black female” and the “dangerous black male” lead me to believe they would be denied the privilege. They would most likely be reprimanded with an improvement plan, or have their employment terminated.
I’ve been known to unleash the occasional curse word, or several, in casual conversation with family, friends, and peers, as many of us do. But as Marshall Goldsmith rightly identified in his 2007 book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, the “I just gotta be me” mindset is a leadership derailer. Cavalier communication is not authentic, it's cavalier. Successful leaders know both actions and words matter and both must be chosen carefully to achieve intended impact. Leaders are on display at all times (and now in perpetuity on the internet), and the weight their words and actions carry is significant. Leaders set the tone for what is acceptable in business culture and communication, and what’s good for them has to be good for those who look up to them, work for and alongside them, or do business with them. Double standards don’t work.
Leaders who value passionate, transparent, and bold communication must, by all means, display those traits consistently. And that may include the use of the occasional profanity. But reliance on divisive language and entitlement to curse must not be confused with authenticity. Excellent leaders choose words and actions with care. They lean on conversational intelligence (c-iq), preferring language that unites, inspires, builds relationships, and resolves issues, over language that demeans and harms others, or compounds issues. Do you agree?
Please leave your comments below. I’d love to know what you think!