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Do you know the size of your own shadow?


It’s an old Sicilian saying, supposedly tied to Mafia lore:

“The fish rots from the head.”

This was never more obvious in recent weeks as arrests, corruption and scandal tore through FIFA, the global organization that governs soccer.

For years, Sepp Blatter ran FIFA like his own personal fiefdom. Bribes, secret deals and self-enrichment were the norm. Now, after a damning investigation and Blatter’s resignation, it’s clear FIFA not only has to change its leader but also its entire culture. As Henry Kissinger once remarked about the messy politics of FIFA, “It makes me nostalgic for the Middle East.”

In business, there are both good examples and bad of how leaders set the cultural tone for their organizations. 

  • Fred Smith started an overnight courier company in Memphis in 1971. He instilled reliability as a core value from Day One. FedEx’s culture has been rooted there ever since, with spectacular success.
  • Enron’s culture of greed and corruption directly stemmed from the failings of its CEO, Jeffrey Skilling, who’s currently serving 24 years in prison for doing a lot of bad things.
  • Steve Jobs inspired innovation at all levels of Apple, once remarking, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”  

So what about you? 

Have you considered the size of your own shadow as a leader?

Do you think about the qualities you bring, the things you do and how you do them, what your personal impact is?  Your customers, your team and your peers watch you, listen to you, and look to see if you walk your talk, if you follow your own systems. 

The culture in your company (or team… or non-profit… or school…) is rooted in how you show up every day. 

Many of us miss this point of leadership.

We see leadership as being in charge, as having power and control, as having others do what we say. We forget that most of our greatest leaders lead by their example, by their passion, by empowering others, and by raising self-belief in the people around them.

We forget that we determine whether those in our organizations will be empowered (and inspired) by systems and values… or chained by power and back room politics like FIFA. 

What are you doing that others see and interpret?

If you exhibit collaboration, courage, compassion, determination and positivity, these will be traits your team looks to copy. They will take your lead and follow. If you’re negative, blaming, controlling, stressful, unwilling to take risks or step outside your comfort zone… well, you know how your team will behave. 

The fish rots from the head.

The positives? Those inspired by leaders follow their example, even when they’re not there – and even after they’re long gone. The cultures they create, the systems they develop, the values they instill… they all carry on.  

  • Think Walt Disney Company… and the culture of vivid imagination.
  • Think Richard Branson’s Virgin… and its “Screw it, let’s do it!” culture.
  • Think Harley-Davidson… and a culture that “fulfills dreams of personal freedom.”

Want to be able to replace yourself in your business?  

Grow a culture that embodies your passion, values and work ethic. Empower your people with effective systems. Be how you want them to be. Consistently. Every day.

Inspire them to tell you what to do. 

And keep your fish in the freezer.  

So ask yourself: 

  1. Are you leading by example and raising the self-belief of others?
  2. Are you letting your smart people tell you what to do?
  3. Are you being… how you want them to be?