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NextGen Know-How: What We Can Learn About Leadership From Ellen DeGeneres

business leader hands supporting employee hands cupped around soil and growing seedling
Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CPCC, PHR Photo
Executive Coach/Consultant
Envision Excellence

3 minutes

Leaders must practice what they preach to grow a culture of trust and integrity.

Ellen DeGeneres has had a tough month. Multiple news outlets have been circulating employee and celebrity stories accusing Ellen of not living up to her mantra of “be kind to one another.” I don’t know if these stories are true, but they are certainly compelling, given the various shared anecdotes of Ellen being more mean-spirited than kind-hearted.

Ellen’s current predicament is a great leadership lesson for all of us. It’s not the words you say that matter; it’s the actions you take.

This reminds me of an interaction I experienced several years ago at a chapter meeting for the National Speakers Association. A well-known speaker was presenting to the group on the importance of building rapport with an audience when he happened to mention the town he grew up in. Immediately, I felt a connection to this speaker; he grew up in a small town in upstate New York just ten minutes from my hometown.

“What are the chances?!” I thought.

Right after he finished speaking, I excitedly approached him to share our mutual connection of small upstate New York towns when he totally blew me off. He was so concerned with getting his books ready for the audience to purchase that he missed an opportunity to really make a connection with someone right there in front of him. It was ironic, since his speech was about building rapport. Yet the minute he walked off the stage, it was like he got out of character and stopped playing the part.

Interestingly, last year I re-met this speaker at a national conference, and he was friendly and engaging. Perhaps the previous year, I caught him in a moment of stress, and he wasn’t his best self. But as leaders, we need to be mindful of how we show up. People are always watching, and every interaction we experience has the opportunity to reinforce our positive message—or completely negate it. These interactions matter, and although we all have bad days, negative exchanges can have a long-term impact on our relationships.

People don’t follow what you say; they follow what you do. To be exceptional leaders, we need to put action behind the messages we convey. We need to walk our talk, not just declare it. It’s in the moments of action (or inaction) that we build trust and cohesion with our employees or chip away at trust and our integrity. Our words matter, but our actions are what bring them to life and demonstrate our message.

Everything great intention needs action to bring it to life:

  • It’s not enough to tell someone you love them; you need to demonstrate it.
  • It’s not enough to say you’re building a great place to work; you need to create a great place to work.
  • It’s not enough to say you value your employees; you need to show them.
  • It’s not enough to say you value respect; you must be respectful.
  • It’s not enough to say you are open to others’ opinions; you must listen.

People trust you when you do what you say you will do. This is how great cultures are created and how leaders become truly influential.

Effective leadership is less about doing, and more about being. It’s not a role you play, it’s a practice you cultivate. It’s the everyday actions you put behind your leadership that makes all the difference.

And you know what, Ellen is right about one thing—kindness matters. But don’t just say it, do it.

Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CPCC, PHR, is a certified executive coach, leadership consultant and founder of CUES Supplier member Envision Excellence LLC in the Washington, D.C., area. Her mission is to create exceptional cultures by teaching leaders how to be exceptional. Maddalena facilitates management and executive training programs and team-building sessions and speaks at leadership events. Prior to starting her business, she was an HR executive at a $450 million credit union. Contact her at 240.605.7940 or lmaddalena@envisionexcellence.net.

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