Dumb Things Leaders Say When They Think No One is Listening

by Alli Polin on June 6, 2017

Waiting for my flight during a long layover, I admit, I tried to read my book but listened to a lot of the people around me talk on their phones. More than a few of them used their time productively and deserved a gold star. They were working on their fancy-schmancy PowerPoints and talking to a colleague. What I couldn’t get over was the dumb stuff they said, and even more interesting was that they had no idea how dumb they sounded. 

There are leaders who:

Trust their team to get things done whether they’re in front or not. 

Encourage people to contribute their ideas.

Invite participation, not passivity. 

Are role models in both their life and leadership.

And there are leaders who:

Are sure they’re indispensable.

Think talent is only found in a rare breed.  

Consistently have the best ideas and the only ones worth choosing.

Believe things will collapse without them.

Thing is, yes, these leaders said some ridiculous things. I’d like to believe that if they stopped and heard a playback, they’d blush and make another choice. It’s not a big deal that I heard it, but it’s a big deal that the person on the other end of the phone did. The fact that they said it with all seriousness is a serious problem. 

I work in leadership as a coach and consultant, so my ears were especially tuned in, but imagine if I was their employee or recruiter. There’s no hanging up the phone and moving on, this is their reality, and it isn’t pretty.

Here’s what I heard, word for word. You decide what it says about their leadership. 

They said: “I just want you to know that I’m available while I’m off.”

Employee heard: “It’s not okay to unplug while you’re on vacation. I’m not so you shouldn’t either.”

Recruiter’s interpretation: “Hire someone who tells you that they never take a vacation. Anyone who values time off will not be happy here long term.”

They said: “We need to only hire unicorns.” 

Employee heard: “Hope you never fall short. If you’re not an “A Player” all the time, in all areas, we don’t need you.”

Recruiter’s interpretation: “Get ready for a long search where I give you little direction other than “hire a unicorn.” Not exactly sure what that means but you’ll figure it out. Good luck.”

They said: “I know I haven’t stopped talking. I’m just thinking, and you happen to be on the phone.”

Employee heard: “Blah blah blah.” 

Recruiter’s interpretation: “When I find that unicorn, they’re going to just love working for them. Not.”

They said: “If you can’t reach me. Don’t do anything. Just keep trying. I’ll pick up eventually.”

Employee heard: “Do nothing, think nothing. You are not capable of leading this so don’t try.”

Recruiter’s thought: “I’ll send them all the candidates and let them narrow it down. Trust is not high on their list.”

The moral of the story isn’t to think about what you say on your phone at the airport because yes, someone you don’t know is listening. Instead, think before you speak and consider what it says about you and your leadership. 

Ask Yourself:

Is that the leader who you want to be? The culture you want to create? The life you want to lead?

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Gary Gruber June 6, 2017 at 6:25 am

Yes! It’s about thinking before speaking instead of blabbering on. I use the phrase, make sure your mind is in gear before engaging your mouth. It helps sometimes to try it, even quietly in the silence of your own mind, before just blurting it out. I think it was Fran Lebowitz who said, “Letting it all hang out is just about as attractive as it sounds.” Thanks, Alli, for such a good reminder about how easy it is to reveal stupid out loud where anyone can hear.


Alli Polin June 6, 2017 at 7:13 am

Fran Lebowitz was spot on 🙂

My mother used to always say, “Think before you speak!” Some of these people need to hear their playback. I’d like to think that they’d be surprised if they had someone who was willing to talk to them about the impact of their words.

Thanks so much, Gary!



John Bennett June 6, 2017 at 10:50 am

Stephen Covey noted humans are the only specie that can pause to Consider between a stimulus and reaction. Too bad so many leaders (and non-leaders of course) don’t use the pause…


Alli Polin June 6, 2017 at 7:57 pm

Ah, yes. The pause. Something we all know about but use all too rarely. With you.



LaRae Quy June 6, 2017 at 5:55 pm

I broke out laughing as I read this list because, YES, I’ve heard it all before! And isn’t that sad? For me, it all goes back to “being intentional” in the way we conduct our life. That simply means: pay attention. As one your guests noted, all it takes is a moment for us to stop and think about what we want to happen in the conversation. When I hear throwaway statements like these, I know their thoughts were not at the job on hand.


Alli Polin June 8, 2017 at 1:17 am

I almost broke out laughing at the airport 🙂

It’s also critical that they have trusted advisors to call them on these things when they hear them. The first step to change is awareness.

Well said, LaRae!



Ingrid June 6, 2017 at 7:59 pm

I chuckled as I read this Alli… I’ve heard them all. In airports, walking down the street, the local coffee shop.

It must be a generational thing, but I am not at all comfortable conducting a business conversation in a public space. Confidentiality and privacy are key, especially with the sort of work I do.

That aside, I am amazed that people feel comfortable broadcasting this sort of stuff in public. Like you, I am a listener and observer, and a latecomer to ownership of a mobile phone. Thank you for the insight!


Alli Polin June 8, 2017 at 1:19 am

I think that there are two mindsets. One assumes that they’ll never see these people again so who cares what they say. The other assumes that confidentiality matters no matter where they are. I’ve always enjoyed watching people – it’s amazing what you stumble across.

Thanks, Ingrid!



Terri Klass June 7, 2017 at 11:17 am

Your list is too funny and too true. We do need to remember that our words and pauses say a lot about who we are as leaders.

In a recent leadership program some of the attendees used crazy adjectives to describe the behavior of others- lazy, uncommitted, weird. When I asked them to think of how the behavior actually looked or what was the particular action that their team member performed that seemed unprofessional, we were able to address the issue more successfully.

Thanks Alli for reminding us about our words! Will definitely share.


Alli Polin June 8, 2017 at 1:24 am

I can picture your recent workshop. We label without fully fleshing out what that means. We overhear it at the airport but it’s the language used back at the office…

Thanks, Terri!



Chery Gegelman June 12, 2017 at 2:03 pm

Ohhh such a great post!

What a test of integrity to decide to recruit “a unicorn” to work for a titled leader that needs to develop their people skills at such a high level, or to walk away from that “opportunity”.


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