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Optics & Appearances
#CancunCruz demonstrates what NOT to do!
When you choose to step into the public eye, stop whining about the fact that people are watching what you do. It’s called “being in the public eye” for a reason. Will your opponents go over-the-top when you make a perceived mistake? Absolutely. Will they ignore you when you do something truly wonderful? You know it. Will they twist the truth (and maybe even lie) to make you look bad? Yup, though they’ll never admit it.
But if that’s the case, why bother worrying about “optics and appearances” at all? And if most of us will never be in the “public eye,” then you might be wondering why I’m even bothering to write about this.
Well, even though most people who strive to be Relaxed Leaders are unlikely to spend much time in the limelight, people can easily shove you into the public eye at any moment if you have a presence online. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to optics and to care about appearances – but not in a vain, self-centered way. To help us explore this topic a bit, let’s take a look at a recent spectacular “fail” and see what we can learn from it.
To begin, let me explain what happened to get me fired up about this topic in the first place…
A “boneheaded” move
I read a lot. I’m reading 10 books right now and I’m to the point where I receive so many email newsletters and blog updates that I’d have to spend 4 or 5 hours a day to read them all thoroughly. I scan and delete most things I receive via email, but once in a while something I normally skim will catch my eye and I slow down and read it more closely. That’s what happened to me a couple weeks ago.
Nat Eliason mentioned something in his Monday Medley that struck a nerve with me. It didn’t make me angry – it was more discouraging than anything. It was just after the massive disaster that was the power grid failure across most of Texas during the week of February 15, 2021. The state was hit with a ridiculously severe winter storm, with cold temperatures rarely seen in that part of the country. Most of Texas relies on natural gas fired power plants and the equipment was basically freezing. If you’re not familiar with it, look it up online, but stick to reputable media outlets. (And if you think millions of people lost power because some wind turbines froze, then you probably shouldn’t be reading this publication!)
Anyway, at the time of Nat’s newsletter, Senator Ted Cruz was under fire for flying to Cancun with his family (only to turn around and fly right back after all of the online backlash). Think about that. One of two Senators who were elected to represent the great state of Texas… bailed out during a crisis that caused millions of people to go without power, heat, and water.
Wow. Honestly, I was appalled. In case you’re wondering, I am NOT a Ted Cruz fan – and I think he’s potentially the antithesis of a Relaxed Leader – but I was still shocked by this amazing lack of judgment.
Okay, so you’re probably wondering what it was that caught my attention and disillusioned me just a bit. Well, here it is:
In the newsletter, Nat wrote, “We (society) are going to focus on the wrong things. CancunCruz flying off to Mexico was a boneheaded move, but I’m also not totally sure what people expect a Senator to do in a power outage.”
Now if you don’t know Nat Eliason, here’s the short version: He’s an intelligent, successful young entrepreneur who reads a lot, knows a lot, and offers opinions and ideas via his blog and YouTube channel. I don’t always agree with him but I like to see what he discovers. I’ve learned some interesting things after he’s introduced me to different topics and books that I may not have discovered on my own.
However, success in one or more areas of life doesn’t make you an expert in all areas of life. Nat is certainly entitled to his opinions and he has some excellent ideas; but, having been a smart twenty-something at one point in my life, I can tell you that intelligence plus success does not automatically equal wisdom. True wisdom usually comes with time, perspective, and thoughtful reflection; whereas intelligence and early success can create a sense of superiority and, oftentimes, a subtle arrogance that blinds us to our own shortcomings and lack of experience.
Success in one or more areas of life doesn’t make you an expert in all areas of life.
Anyway, like so many things, Nat’s comments seem logical and practical on the surface. Seriously – what can one Senator do in the midst of a disastrous power outage affecting millions of people? It’s not like he can grab his tool box and go fix the power grid, fer cryin’ out loud!
You need the correct perspective
But what if we replace the word “Senator” with “Leader?”
Now the statement becomes: “I’m also not sure what people expect a Leader to do in a power outage.”
Wow. I don’t know about you but I think the statement sounds pretty damn silly when you put it in the correct perspective. Because let’s be clear: We elect Senators to be leaders. And if there was ever a time we needed our elected leaders to actually LEAD, it’s during a damn crisis. Even if the leader can’t solve every problem in the midst of the crisis, it’s still the leader’s responsibility to set the proper example.
Nat goes on to say, “[That] we’re even talking about Cruz is a problem because it indicates we’re going to focus on the fun headlines (Haha another Texas politician did something stupid) vs. the actual problems (holy shit our power grid is fragile).”
Is the fragility of the power grid a serious issue? Of course it is – and we definitely need to look more closely at the true root causes of this catastrophe. But who the hell do you think is on the hook to ensure that there is a properly conducted root cause analysis, that options are explored thoroughly, and that decisions for improvement are made with the welfare of the public truly in mind? THE ELECTED LEADERS LIKE CRUZ!
Instead of running off to Cancun because he had the financial means to weather the storm somewhere sunny, the Senator from the great state of Texas should’ve been on the ground demonstrating what it means to be a leader and a caring member of society. Does one more set of hands at the foodbank handing out cases of bottled water make a difference? Yes! Especially if that set of hands belongs to one of the two people elected to represent the state in the U.S. Senate!
A higher standard
Every citizen should get to vote for their elected leaders and they shouldn’t just vote based on party affiliation, political advertising they see, or the bombastic opinions of obnoxious pundits whose goal is to create controversy and increase viewership. So what does that leave? How do we figure out who to vote for?
Well, the most important thing is to take a close, critical look at her or his platform and public stance on issues that are important to you. But a close second is to watch how they handle themselves as elected leaders. Anyone can tell you what you want to hear in order to get your vote... but their actions will speak louder than any false promises they might have made.
And if you’re thinking, “There were all kinds of other people who went somewhere safer during the crisis,” just stop. It’s completely different. Leaders – especially those who have been elected – must be held to a significantly higher standard. And if someone isn’t willing to be held to that higher standard, then they shouldn’t run for public office.
The fact that most Republicans (and Nat, in his newsletter) seem to be willing to simply move past Cruz’s abdication of leadership during a crisis facing Texas – the state he was elected to represent – speaks to a deeper problem. There is a troubling belief, especially among conservative circles, that certain people are simply above accountability. So this alleged desire to give Cruz a pass and “get at the real issue” is disingenuous at its core.
Yes, this crisis in Texas shined a spotlight on the fragility of the state’s power grid. There’s no doubt about it and it must be addressed, sooner rather than later. But the bigger problem it illuminated was a crisis of leadership among the state’s elected officials at many levels of government. If those officials are able to avoid accountability and aren’t held to higher standards of conduct, do you really think they’re going to fix the Texas power grid? Of course not. You know it. I know it. And Nat knows it too. (Which is why he went on to explain how he’s prepping for the next power grid disaster!)
Do optics matter everywhere?
Paying attention to optics and appearances isn’t just a superficial thing that elected leaders have to do to please voters. In fact, Relaxed Leaders should use it as an opportunity to question not only their decisions but their potential biases and underlying motives. If I’m getting ready to do something and I pause because “the optics might be bad,” then I need to go deeper. Why would it look bad? If it’s an excellent decision, then why wouldn’t the optics be good?
Often the answer to that question is, “Well, if people understood the whole situation and all the factors, then they’d see it’s the best decision to make.” Okay – that tells me you have a communications problem. Why don’t people have the full picture? What is it that you haven’t been sharing with them? Perhaps you need to do some change management before you take an action that will look bad without a detailed (and potentially convoluted) explanation.
If you work in the private sector, you might think optics are only important when it comes to people who have authority over you – but a Relaxed Leader knows better. Even though the people who work for me don’t get to vote on whether or not I’m their boss, the simple truth is that I’m able to accomplish amazing things when my direct reports really WANT to work for me! And since they can’t be with me in every meeting and know every single thing I know, it’s important that I keep in mind the optics of what I do. I share the right amount of information so they understand my vision for the team and are not surprised by decisions I make. If I happen to do something that appears discordant to them, they’ll give me the benefit of the doubt because of the trust I’ve built with them over time.
The bottom line:
People in positions of authority – especially our elected leaders – can and must be held to a higher standard. And if you aspire to be a Relaxed Leader, regardless of where you are at this moment in time, then you need to start holding yourself to that higher standard as well.
One way to do this is to start paying attention to optics and appearances. Not in an attempt to present a false version of yourself but as a way to hold up a mirror to your choices and actions. When the optics of what you intend to do look bad, then take a closer look. If the decision is truly good and will help us make progress towards a more fair and just world, don’t simply plow ahead. The fact that your intended action could appear wrong might indicate some other problem you need to address first.
Keep in mind one final thing: Having people disagree with you is NOT poor optics; but having them disagree with you for the wrong reasons just might be.