Lululemon founder Chip Wilson’s fall from grace is proof of an important principle of leadership: Heading up an organization does not give you the right to say anything and everything that comes into your mind.
Wilson stepped down December 10 as chairman of the company that, in just 15 years, grew from a single retail store in Vancouver to a multibillion-dollar active wear empire. There is no getting away from the fact that Wilson helped build one of the most iconic brands in the international retail industry.
Wilson was renowned for fiercely defending the culture at Lululemon. Up until this past year, Wilson’s emphasis on culture seemed to be spot on. The company had consistently outperformed expectations, and share prices had risen steadily.
And then it all went wrong. In less than a year, Lululemon had to recall thousands of flawed yoga pants, lost its CEO and other top executives. It watched its share prices go into free fall.
In the midst of all this upheaval, Wilson threw gasoline on the fire when he suggested that some of his customers simply did not have the bodies to wear Lululemon’s yoga pants. Investors responded with a class action lawsuit.
The implosion of Wilson’s personal brand is a cautionary tale for any leader that, facing a stressful situation, opts to speak first and ask questions later.
We’ve all come accustomed to leaders who engage in what I like to call “leader-speak.” This is controlled parlance of leadership. It is often filled with standard clichés and jargon. At the end of the day, many words are expressed and little is actually said. It’s safe and sterile and keeps leaders out of trouble.
However, we also know that stress can, and frequently does, force some leaders out of the bubble of leader-speak and into more frank and unguarded comments. This is not necessarily a bad thing; many people appreciate leaders who practice transparency and honesty. However, that kind of communication requires some thoughtful consideration in advance.
Leadership is not carte blanche to say anything at any time. However, if you feel the need to stray from the normal script, you better have explicitly identified what it is you want to say. You need to be in touch with your beliefs and have a clear idea of why you’re saying what you’re saying.
Without engaging in this thought process beforehand, you risk saying something that blows up in your face. At the very least, you may find that what you said, and what others are repeating, is not what you meant.
Ultimately, Chip Wilson died on the altar of his appetite for frank, unguarded talk. More importantly, people perceived his words as ultimately revealing what he truly believed about his customers. Whether or not that is true doesn’t matter.
His off-handed comments broke the strong bond he had established with his customers and infuriated his investors. His words contradicted the company’s culture.
The lesson here for all leaders, myself included, is to be absolutely clear about what we believe. We need to be wise in our use of leader-speak and avoid saying things we actually don’t believe.
On the other hand, we must also be careful when speaking more frankly and honestly. In the face of a truly stressful situation, you need to have a clear idea about what you believe, what your organization stands for, and what you want to achieve.
As Chip Wilson has demonstrated, firing from the lip without knowing exactly what you want to say will, ultimately, end in spectacular personal failure. Have you ever found yourself reeling because you didn’t think before you spoke? What are your (painfully) funny stories?
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About the Author
Vince Molinaro is the Global Managing Director of Strategic Solutions at Lee Hecht Harrison. He is also the author of The Leadership Contract – a New York Times and USA Today bestseller. Vince has spent more than 20 years as an adviser to boards and senior executives looking to improve leadership in their organizations.Follow on Twitter More Content by Vince Molinaro