Prince Philip was a man who spoke his mind, in an institution where speaking your mind isn’t always the done thing. Sometimes he said too much – in the exhaustive coverage of his death over the last week, we’ve been reminded of several front-page-grabbing gaffes.
It’s a constant danger for people in positions of prominence, that their throwaway comments may one day come back to bite them, and memories are long in the social media age.
This presents leaders with a conundrum. The safest way to protect your reputation is to keep your mouth shut, or at least filter what you say. But can you be authentic – someone who is themselves, unrestrained – at work, if every word you speak has been vetted by your comms director?
Authenticity can sound like a buzzword, but read a book like The Glass Closet by John Browne, the former BP CEO who hid his sexual orientation for four decades and then resigned once he was outed, and you realise what the alternative is: not being yourself is distracting, unpleasant, exhausting.
“I thought, ‘It’s my private life. It’s no one else’s business.’ But I realise now that, when you’re a leader, you don’t have a private life, you’re public property. If you say it’s OK to be different, you’ll give people the confidence to be themselves,” Browne later said.
Being yourself needn’t mean we’re somehow less professional – the same person can play with their toddler on a Sunday and chair a board meeting on a Monday without ever being fake – or that we have a license to abandon self-control. But it will come at a cost.
There will inevitably be a positive correlation between saying what we think and saying something stupid. We’re not perfect – some ideas or remarks sound great in our heads, but don’t survive contact with the air. In the long run of course that’s a good thing – it’s how we improve.
We just need to be prepared – as Prince Philip was – to own our words and actions, to apologise when we get it wrong and to extend others the same benefit of the doubt as we’d hope to receive ourselves.