Why did Scaramucci crash and burn in the White House?

Antony Scaramucci’s term in the White House must be one of the shortest terms anyone has served in American politics. His departure after 10 days on the job was attributed to his use of vulgar and profane language. That was however the symptom, not the problem.

Generally speaking, untrained eyes and ears make the mistake of thinking that what they see is the actual problem while all along it’s a symptom of the problem. And we all know that treating a symptom doesn’t make the problem go away. Taking pain killers for a sore throat will treat the symptom but do nothing for the problem – the infection that’s causing the sore throat. In fact, it will make things worse by allowing the infection to spread.

Scaramucci’s bad language was merely a symptom of a greater problem he had. He was clueless as to what leadership is all about, let alone leadership in the 21st century. The leaders of Wall Street are those who make the best “buy and sell” decisions, amassing wealth for their clients and themselves, and making a name for themselves among their own kind as the “leaders” of the pack. They are thus allowed to speak and act as they wish because no-one is going to contradict them. In fact, those below them will admire their hard talking, straight shooting style. Younger stockbrokers will look at them and think, “When I grow up, I wanna be like him!”

After all, they’re the successful ones and you can’t argue with their (financial) success.

But, if Scarramucci thought he’s “straight” talking would win him the respect of his colleagues, members of the media and his fellow Americans, he was in for a big surprise – a surprise he duly received.

The sad truth is that he’s not the exception. There are still busloads of so-called business leaders who think the leadership model that’s been around for 99 years (since the end of the First World War in 1918) is still relevant.

That model of leadership was a military model of leadership and it has started falling into disuse as the workplace evolves.

In the military, the rank you occupy gives you certain power, authority and the right to do and say whatever you wish in order to accomplish your mission. The Mooch made a classic mistake – he thought that, once he was the Communications Director, he had the power and authority to speak like he wished.

I suspect he deliberately laced what he said with vulgar language to send a message to the reporter he was speaking to on the phone that he was now in charge and was not afraid to tell it like it is. He probably thought that he would win grudging admiration from him for shooting from the hip, so to speak.

He is but one of a battalion of leaders who still mistakenly think that they will be respected for being a tough guy. They probably think that those below them (and I use the word “below” intentionally) will feel more secure in the knowledge that their leader is tough and they therefore have nothing to fear.

Today, more than ever, there’s a need for strong leaders. The fundamental difference is that strength and toughness are no longer defined the way they were in the last century.

Today, strength and toughness in the workplace have nothing to do with military behaviour. While military leadership is all about power and force, and showing no fear or vulnerability, the workplace is not a battle field and therefore does not require military thinking or military behaviour for success.

Scaramucci thinks his mistake was trusting a reporter to not report his vulgar language, but his mistake was thinking that, as a military style leader, he could speak like that.     

Are you still a military leader? Do you still think your position gives you the power and authority to act and speak like you want to?

You may hang onto your job for longer than Scaramucci hung onto his, but that doesn’t change the fact that you’re horribly out of touch with the shift in leadership qualities and skills necessary for the coming decade.

The world is crying out for “grown up”, emotionally mature leaders who understand that business is not a war in which “enemies” have to be conquered or eliminated. New leaders will be listeners rather than leaders who bark orders. But they will not be passive listeners. They will actively listen to their customers, their employees and their competitors in order to make smart decisions.

The Scaramuccis of this world are living on borrowed time. Don’t be one of them.

Alan Hosking is the publisher of HR Future magazine, @HRFuturemag, and assists executives to prevent, reverse and delay ageing, and achieve self-mastery.

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