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The hard truth by 'Z': Time for a demeanor check

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in Career Management,Workplace Communication

Just because you see football players dance in the end zone after scoring a touchdown, don’t assume it’s OK to go wild when something goes right. It may seem fine to resort to high-fives or fist-pumping hoots when you land a big account, but that will hardly make you look like a CEO.

Sure, some people are demonstrative by nature. Fiery leaders like the late Sam Walton (founder of Wal-Mart) or Herb Kelleher (chairman of Southwest Airlines) carry on like kids, giving rousing speeches and delighting their employees by starring in silly skits. But only a rare few can get away with such antics.

The managers I respect are gung-ho but never act childish. In fact, they calculate just how much playfulness they can get away with. They know that too many outbursts will undermine their authority.

The unflappable edge

I’m a big believer in maintaining outward calm when things get crazy. Yes, I’m visibly excited when I hear great news. The secret is not reacting like you won the lottery.

If you want to develop the look of a leader, screen yourself. The next time you want to yell or cackle or throw a pen across the room, ask yourself if others’ perceptions of you will reinforce the professional image you want to convey. Don’t assume it’s OK just because you’ve seen a top executive act out his emotions.

My company used to have a board member who would literally froth at the mouth when he spoke. He reminded me of Mike Ditka, the former pro football coach who paced the sidelines screaming at referees and losing his cool. Our board of directors eventually dumped the guy because he was out of control.

Upon reflection ...

When I first entered the corporate world, I was pretty wild. My bosses tolerated my quirks—such as my penchant for clapping my hands like a madman when I was nervous or singing my college fight song when I was mustering courage to do something I didn’t want to do.

Then one of my mentors had a mirror installed to cover one wall of my office. “You’ll see how you act all day,” he said. “And you can decide for yourself how that influences how others see you.”

Soon enough, I was watching myself act like a five-year-old. It was fun at first because I figured I was getting away with it. But then I noticed how people would cringe when I got worked up or would seem alarmed or even offended by my behavior. The mirror came down after three months, and I was a changed man.

“Z” offers insights into what it really takes to get ahead. This 25-year veteran of the corporate battlefield has climbed the ranks to head a $100 million information services company. We have agreed to protect Z’s identity in return for his promise to hold nothing back.

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