Years ago when my daughter was in high school, she was walking home with a friend who was, let’s just say, not in the so-called “popular crowd.” As they turned the corner towards home, they heard jeers from the second floor window of a neighbor’s home. From behind the screen, a boy their age and his posse of friends felt emboldened; secure with their relative anonymity, they said outrageous and hurtful things. My daughter and her friend kept walking. They came home and told us about it, but said they didn’t want us to confront the parents. In retrospect, we should have.
It was reprehensible behavior.
We wrote it off as juvenile group-think and speculated that anything we said to the parents wouldn’t matter; these boys were already who they were. Their character was already formed. Secretly, I hoped that by some miracle they might might wake up someday and think, “I regret that. That is not who I am or want to be. That was not a day I was proud of.”
Then I ran into the adult version of these bad boys. I got a dose of bad boy behavior myself.
I was playing golf at our country club, and on the 9th hole it took me several shots to get past the water hazard to the green. My putting was frankly embarrassing. In the distance, I was vaguely aware of a group of people cheering from a window at the clubhouse. I looked up and saw a couple of guys standing in that window. I didn’t know them. My golfing partner explained they were actually jeering; they were betting on our shots.
It was a game. We were the entertainment. My misery was making somebody a hundred bucks.
I finished the hole and decided that this could not possibly stand. So took a deep breath and walked upstairs to the pro shop, through the well-appointed lobby, and into the big oak bar. I was surprised to see how many men were in the room at 11:30 AM on a Sunday morning, drinking beer. I later learned that they always grab the early morning tee times, and come back to the clubhouse to imbibe and make a few more bets before going home. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against a beer or two after golf. Still, the scene kinda took me back. Especially before noon on a Sunday.
By the time I arrived, they had abandoned the window. Some of them were looking intently at each other, or down into their beers. A few looked up. I finally said to the group, “Who was just standing at the window?” After a pause, one man said, “We all were.” Then, silence.
In that moment, I realized they were all in on it. Only this wasn’t high school. These were grown men. Executives and retired executives. I smiled, scanned the room and locked eyes with a couple of them who had the courage to look back. I nodded my head. And kept nodding, as I scanned the room, making eye contact with a few more. As in, “Real cool, aren’t you?” And then I turned around and walked out of the bar.
In retrospect, some of them must have known that I was coming when they saw me head up the stairs. The sensible thing would have been to prepare an apology. Yet, they all hid behind each other, just like those high school boys. I guarantee not a single one of them went home and told their wife this story. If they had, they would have caught hell.
There is a leadership lesson.
I have been thinking a lot about it. When bad boy behavior takes hold it is tolerated and eventually accepted. I guarantee the bartender and manager are mortified witnesses to this behavior, week after week. It has gone on for so long that they now believe they are best advised to look the other way. The bad boys in that place rule.
Anybody who knows me would tell you I have the loudest laugh in the room, and I’m the first to tell a joke, especially if it involves my golf game. Bad boys will always try to write off their behavior by saying the recipient has no sense of humor. Accept this explanation at your peril.
Companies spend millions recruiting and retaining “top talent,” and then often are left wondering why good people walk out the door.
Sometimes, it’s just because these employees know it isn’t high school, and that they don’t have to put up with bad behavior.
If I could rewind to that day when my daughter and her friend came home and told us what happened, I would walk down the street, knock on my neighbors’ door, and tell them. Bad boys grow up to be…bad boys. That is, unless somebody decides not to let them hide.