Jeff Shell, What The Hell Were You Thinking?
First there was Les Moonves, then Jeff Zucker and now Jeff Shell, the chief executive at NBCUniversal ousted on Monday for an inappropriate relationship with a staffer. As Jay Leno famously said to Hugh Grant: “What the hell were you thinking?”
This kind of bad behavior has been going on since the dawn of our industry. Men in power, believing they are not subject to the same standards as everyone else, use that power to gain a sexual relationship in their own company, then issue a half-hearted apology when the walls of deceit come tumbling down.
These predators range from the overt such as Les Moonves to the more cunning like Matt Lauer, who target vulnerable young women who, flattered by the attention, think the predator genuinely wants to help their careers. Of course, the opposite usually happens, and the women end up further victimized, losing the respect of co-workers and often their professional future.
Another kind of predator kids himself into thinking he is the actual victim. After all, the woman was also a high-level executive, a consenting adult and “that’s not the kind of person I am.” Really? Here’s a news flash: If you did it, that is exactly the kind of person you are.
All these guys would be offended if you compared them to Harvey Weinstein, but when you think about it the only real difference is that Weinstein was crude and direct. At least Weinstein didn’t delude himself into believing young women were really interested in sleeping with an ugly, balding, overweight old man.
Of course, these abuses are never really a secret. The first thing that happens when rumors start flying is that the boss loses all moral authority. We don’t talk much about moral authority these days, but it remains an essential element of leadership.
Moral authority is the reason employees believe in a leader. Company morale, creativity and productivity are all tied to that authority. When the leader turns out to be an immoral fake, the company’s mission is always damaged.
Years ago, I worked for a company where this happened. Not only did the leader lose respect, but other employees began to wonder if the woman involved gained her position through favoritism. It was a nasty situation that sucked a lot of energy out of the business.
At this point I should say the same rules apply if the CEO is a woman, but in my experience so far, all the bad actors have been men.
Great leaders understand they must not only talk the talk but walk the walk every single day. It doesn’t matter if a person is a CEO, a general manager or a department head, there is no excuse for a sexual relationship with an employee.
When you are caught, and you probably will be, remember one thing: You are exactly that kind of person.
Hank Price spent 30 years leading television stations for Hearst, CBS and Gannett while concurrently building a career in executive education. He is the author of Leading Local Television and two other books.