Do You Know What They're Whispering?


A fascinating issue popped up on my “Winner’s Circle” radio show on Saturday.  It prompts me to ask you “bosses” out there:  Do you know what they’re whispering about you?  Yes, they are whispering!  On the show, my guest, Kathi Elster talked about a boss who admitted she was aware of the whispers:  “People sometimes say I’m ‘intimidating.'”  Kathi knew those were the audible whispers, but what they were saying when she wasn’t around was, “she’s a bully.”

What they’re whispering matters, because the things they’re saying are not just talk.  For instance, how do you act when the authority is a bully?  Most of us shut down, we quit taking risks, we don’t share important but bad news, we may even fudge the truth to stay out of trouble.  So, being a bully or a “commanding presence,” or “a leader who demands accountability” may come at a high cost that we may never see, if we don’t begin to hear what they’re whispering.

On the other hand, if you know what they’re whispering or saying (or screaming when they know you’re out of town), you have the ability to learn and to change.  People have certainly whispered about me: “every day the guy’s got a new project that he thinks is so totally cool we should all drop everything else (like yesterday’s really cool ideas) and get it done.”  The first step for me was awareness – Houston we have a problem!  That meant and means giving my co-workers permission to say, “I think you’re doing it again.”  Two of the most helpful words we have around our shop are “scope creep,” and everyone has explicit permission to utter them.

Do you know your Achilles heel(s). what they’re whispering about you?  Because you can bet your team does.  And the shortcomings of the manager get multiplied through the system.  If you have the courage and the love for truth, you might ask your team (or your kids) to tell you – or tell you again:  “What thing or things am I doing that are getting in the way of your doing a great job?”  And, if anyone has ever whispered – as they did about the boss above – that they were “intimidated” by you – no matter how crazy you think that is – then you might invite them to anonymously write down your questionable behaviors.

You have to hear what they’re whispering and face the brutal facts if you’re going to

Lead with your best self!


  • Hi Dan! Though I usually agree with your point of view, I have to comment this morning…”intimidating” is in the eye of the beholder. I think this is especially true with women. It does not necessarily follow that the person who seems intimidating is a bully. That individual might just be talented and competent, seen through the eyes of someone with less confidence.

    • Christine,
      I think you are right, but I don’t think that yours and my dad’s correctness are mutually exclusive. Because someone may seem intimidating to a less confident employee does not change the fact that that employee feels intimidated. Being one of those “intimidating” people, I know that I have to step out of my boss-shoes once in a while to see how others may feel intimidated by me, and often I see that there is a lot of work to be done on my part to get to a point where they can be comfortable. I believe this is the point my dad is trying to make, that you have to listen to people’s whispers because, while you may know yourself to be assertive, you may not realize the kind of effects your strong personality has on others.

      • Kate,
        Great food for thought. It can be sobering to reconcile your intentions with your outcome! 🙂

      • Kate,
        Just read your comments to your Dad’s column about the ‘whisperings’ .I thought it was very insiteful and sensitive and so great that it brought tears to my eyes.I’m very proud of you and I love you very much Love. Grams.

  • What goes on in any communication process is the exchange of meaning and intention. This exchange sets forth expectations and it reflects on experiences in relationships. When we talk about the relevance of what people are whispering, we are dealing with part of the communication process that is reflective. That’s all.

    When the “whisper content” is not on track with our intentions and desires, either the leader [sender] or the group [receivers] are not in sync. Effective leaders and followers adjust and connect accordingly. Problems emerge when nobody makes the adjustment; this happens at every level and in every relationship. In business, in families, in sports teams, etc.

    Daniel Wolf
    Dewar Sloan
    Consultants and Advisors to Management

    Prepared and Resolved
    The Strategic Agenda for Growth Performance and Change, dsb 2007

  • Here’s the whispers that are being said:
    There’s two big tests of leadership that will be a crucial lesson for all Michigan residents on how our elected representatives are willing to take the heat for unpopular and controversial political stands that may go against some of their core base.

    As reported last week in the Detroit Free Press, the Governor has the ability to remove a mayor from office. It will be interesting to see if one of our “Reading for Leading” readers will follow the lessons that are laid out here each week. Precisely, will there be enough courage and guts to remove a remove a fellow Democrat, birthed from the same Ed McNamara womb as her in an overwhelming Democratic city? Removing him from office is a true show of leadership and the only right thing to do. But raise your hands if you think she has the political guts to do it?

    If the Mayor’s actions haven’t given us enough of a black eye around the neighborhood, the fact that Michigan is now embroiled in a stupid never-should-have-come-to-this fight regarding the Democratic presidential primary is a coursebook for failed leadership decisions. The tandem of Carl Levin and the Governor made ill-advised choices that now have the nation snickering at Michigan (and Florida) and a source of embarrassment to us all, Republican and Democrat alike. By playing a tough game of “dare” with the DNC, Michigan now has voters who spent time, effort and resources to vote because our leaders said “there’s no way they won’t count your vote” and the likely scenerio that those votes are headed the same place human excrement goes. Now, there’s millions of dollars that will be wasted and a very quiet game of trying to figure out how to blame someone other than the leaders who got Michigan in this can of sardines in the first place.

    After watching this, is anyone surprised at the leadership gap in the Budget Mess of 2007? Whisper to the person next to you your answer.

    • I have to ask the question – John M you do know that Dan is the “First Gentleman” of Michigan – that’s translated to Jennifer’s husband??

    • John M –

      Like the rest of us you “have been blown away”. It is amazing we have a state in this horrible condition along with its biggest city which has been a wasteland for decades now and it seems like nothing is being done about it.

      Drastic times call for drastic maesures. Who will laed us?!

        • New York’s Governor resigns. While I have faulted our own Governor above for her lack of leadership in some areas, I believe she has upheld the office with the integrity and respect that it deserves.

          It took New Yorkers three days to clean up their mess and send the dirty rotten scoundrel to the curb. Why must Detroiters continue to endure this sideshow? I implore the Governor for the good of Detroiters, Metro-Detroiters, and Michiganders to step up, grab the leadership bull by the horns, and end the madness. Remove this mayor from office.

          We are again a laughingstock on the national news because of the State of the City speech (Mr. Mayor felt the need to use poor language that we buried in Detroit last year. He chose to point the finger at everyone but himself. The good work that he has done has been crumbling due to the mistakes and arrogance he has wrapped himself in. Please help us clean this mess up by removing one of your political brothers who has gone astray.

          This week in Reading, we learned about “whispers.” Silence though, from the Governor is not always golden. A leader knows when to talk and strike.

          • John,

            Thanks for weighing in with your views – passionately held and well expressed. You make the point well. And it’s good to have things spoken clearly, not whispered.

            Let me take some issue with your position. Like so many who hold views strongly, you pit your moral views of leadership against what can only be to you weakness, or political timidity, or political cronyism. That works well rhetorically, but I don’t think it shows the same kind of judgment that you are calling for. Be fair and weigh the moral – a tough leader’s stand – agains the moral – weighing legal rights and political processes. For instance, you pit the need for “moral strength” against what you take to be my wife being “weak” in not dethroning a mayor. Yet at the same time, you fault her for “playing a tough game of ‘dare'” with the DNC. So, is she weak or too bold?

            Are leaders clearly one or the other? My obvious bias will show, but she was very tough with the legislature, and in the end got a package that has kept the state afloat. Many criticized her for not getting the horses to drink the water, but guess what in the end, they did (after a half-day shutdown) and the deal was pretty good for Michigan. Should she have caved to the Republican opposition months earlier? I don’t think that would have been strong or good leadership. Likewise she and Carl Levin have said “enough” to a broken electoral system. As in most strategic chess games they couldn’t predict how all the other actors would play their cards. They took a bold move -as the marines would do – but they couldn’t control outcomes. To my mind, the general attack on Jennifer as “weak” is itself a little weak.

            I appreciate your recognition that we bust our tails to run a high-integrity ship, and the “they’re all McNamara cronies” rhetoric – which was way-exaggerated when it comes to HIS team, seems pretty tired here. The Governor and the Mayor have not always seen eye-to-eye; neither is beholden to the other.

            So, as to the substance, John, it’s a tough tight-rope and sometimes issues have to ripen before they’re ready for resolution. FDR took a very long time before he led us into WWII. Lincoln tried many things before he went to war. In Detroit you have a long-disenfranchised group of people who don’t want to be told what to do. They are adults. They have a city council, voters, and vibrant media discussion. One might ascribe fear (of being unpopular) to Jennifer’s allowing the political and legal process to work itself out – the prosecutor is trying to do her job and will come forth in two weeks with her decision. Or one might say she is respecting the system and the voters. Frankly, I think it’s the latter.

            I actually admired the way Governor Spitzer stepped down. He said he has stood for high principles and now must measure himself against them. That was impressive. If the mayor really has the city’s best interests in mind, he has got to pay attention to the tremendous drag on our system that you speak so clearly.

            I hope he will find his own moral high ground. Account for himself, first to himself. And then to the citizens. Meanwhile, we all have work of our own to do.

            Again, although this is not primarily a political blogspace, I do appreciate your encouraging me and my bride/governor to listen to all whispers and cries and lead with our best selves.



          • Thank you Mr. Mulhern for the reply. I definitely see where you are coming from and while we have differing opinions, I respect the explanation which sheds some light on the opposing view. I too believe that the way the New York Governor quickly moved, called himself out, and stepped down because he lacked the moral authority that previously allowed him to lead is actually a great example of leadership, even in a negative light due to his past actions. I wish the same would be true in Detroit.

            I also was impressed today that Mike Cox was willing to step out and condemn the Mayor with strong language and suggest he resign. Even though Mr. Cox is from a differing party, he was often accused of being close to the Mayor with ties to Mike Duggan. He knew that if he spoke it would cause people to revisit and recall his own past personal indiscretions and question how thorough his “urban legend” investigation of the Mayor’s party really was. Yet, he stood up and said what he believed.

            Thanks for listening.

          • I don’t know how long the situation in Detroit has to “ripen”. I think 40 years of grinding that city into ground is long enough. It would be hard to imagine the Govenor keeping quiet if this was a Republican mayor.

            I want to Detroit to succeed. I really do. The more voices of clarity on the mayor’s wrong doing the better. It seems that not saying anything is speaking volumes.

  • Hey Dan! Have you been reading my memoirs? If I had any, they might contain this cautionary tale…

    Once upon a time…

    …more years ago than I want to mention, I was invited to move from a job in the Human Resources department to one in the Information Technology department. This seemed odd, for I had little technical knowledge of either PCs or server technologies. A new director in HR was busy cleaning house, and though I recognized a potential trap was being sprung, I knew it was time to leave. I leapt at the opportunity and never looked back. However, there was an immediate and enduring problem: No one in my new department would spend any time with me or even talk civilly with me (other than my new supervisor). I felt like a pariah, and the more I tried to befriend my new colleagues, the more distant they became. My supervisor was not forthcoming with anything that could help.

    Was it my manner of dress, or my attitude, or my involvement with the Employee Assistance Program? Did I have B.O. or spinach in my teeth?

    Comment was not forthcoming.

    Then a budget purge occurred, and my supervisor — a long time employee, well-liked by most of her co-workers, was laid off. The budget sword missed me for some reason. My co-workers banded together for comfort and strength – but I was excluded and now treated as something of a super-pariah.

    Our unit had no supervisor, and no funds were available for one, so we formed a self-managed team. The first step in the process was a cleansing meeting. We rented a space at a local restaurant (so we could have lunch and munchies), locked ourselves in and started clearing the air. Item one on the agenda was…me.

    With terrible trepidation as my companion, I went to beard the lions in their den. I think they may have originally planned a lynching, but in the meantime a member of the team received a message from our immediate past supervisor. She had been prevented from sharing a few important tidbits about my situation.

    My invitation to the new department was designed to put me into an unfamiliar environment where I had no skills to survive. I assume I was expected to grow frustrated and quit. As it turned out, I have a talent for breaking software – a good talent for a computer analyst.

    The staff assumed (I don’t know if there was any help arriving at this assumption) that I had forced my way into their IT department, at full salary, with no apparent duties and no apparent computer-related skills. I replaced an old colleague who was (interestingly enough) invited to move to HR. I think they traded “problems.”

    What the staff saw was an un-tested, un-talented upstart forcing his way into their world — probably by pulling strings with the administration. I just assumed that they hated me or that I smelled bad or something. This situation lasted for more than a year and I truly was on the fence about leaving my job to save my sanity. All of this was because of what they were whispering to each other and because of the gag placed in my supervisor’s mouth by upper management.

    The lesson I took from this: It is a wise move to occasionally lock your team in a quiet room, provide plenty of time and plenty of good food, and free them up to “clear the air.” True, our situation was extreme – if we could’t make the self-managed team idea work, our division would be disbanded and positions distributed within other divisions that still had supervisors. But the catharsis from that cleansing meeting powered our determination to make the team work.

    By the way, the self-managed team idea eventually collapsed — mainly because other division supervisors didn’t like dealing with individual team members. They preferred a colleague at their own level. However, by the time a new supervisor was chosen, there were funds to pay for a boss – and we stayed together for a while longer.

    I found that my odor improved with the others and I lived there, happily ever-after until the next budget crunch, when my job disappeared.

  • Dan,

    “Whispering” really is not an issue to be disputed but to be managed and I believe your column captured that essence.

  • I remember watching the video tapes of Louis Tice who was president of the Pacific Institute in Seattle, Washington about fifteen years ago. I do not know whether or not he is still active with his institute. He said that good leaders are secure enough to give up control in order to be in control. It is a paradox but it is so true. Most leaders are insecure or bullies because they do not have enough confidence in their abilities to give up control and so they must give the impression of being in control. There are many inadequate employees who cannot think for themselves and they always need direction. A good leader will hire competent people, especially if the leader is secure enough in their own abilities. An incompetent leader will hire incompetent employees so the leader can blame some one for the mistakes or problems within the company or organization. I see America lacking in good leadership and good employees.

  • Whispers can be started at the top as well as the bottom. I worked in the concrete products manufacturing industry for two years out East. I worked at two companies in those two years, about one year at each during the falling apart of the 1980’s savings and loan debacle that at first caused a boom and then an economic bust.

    The owner of the first company played a lot of games with people. It was traumatic to work for the man, because the company always seemed in chaos. What I slowly figured out was that it was the owner who kept things in chaos to put pressure on employees to work harder. That caused a lot of stress. One method he used was by speaking “confidentially” to me about other employees. He would say things that would make me angry with other employees, or make me not want to talk with them, or to have conflicts with them. Then one day I got to thinking that this was a lot of conflict and chaos going on. So I broke his rule of not telling other people what he was telling me.

    I told an employee I was not getting a long with what “Bob” had told me about them. And then that employee shared a similar story about what Bob had told him about me. The stories were so in conflict and so convoluted that we saw what Bob was doing to us. We went into Bob’s office and talked about it. The result was Bob got better at playing games.

    As to Jennifer Granholm and Carl Levin taking a risk on the date of the Michigan primary . . . We will see how that comes out in the wash. The right thing may be done for the wrong reasons. Or maybe for the right reasons. Was it worth the gamble? Maybe we will learn a few things during the convention.

    Mark John Hunter

    • Dear Mark,

      Thanks so much for your feedback. We’d love to send you one of our leadership reads to recognize Reading Month! Could you please email me your contact information at, and we’ll show you your options!

      Thanks for reading and leading with your best self!


  • I think Kathi was wrong. It is not the supervisor’s job to motivate. The supervisor’s job is to make sure the job is getting done. When an adult takes on a job, it is expected the adult will do what he/she is contracted to do. Otherwise, an adolescent has been hired.
    Motivation then comes from the supervisor simply identifying what needs to be done, asking if the person has the resources necessary, understands his/her responsibility, then trusts the person will carry out what they say they will do. Provide support, positive regard, and compliments on a job well done. If there is some slippage, the supervisor identifies the problem with the peer, asks what needs to be done and what is needed by the peer to do the job, then moves on. If the peer continues to not do the job, time for the peer to move on.
    In terms of spiritual leadership: integrity, honesty, justice, understanding.

  • Working for a non-profit counseling and mentoring agency, I’m always looking out side the box to touch more lives. I’m reading Chasing Francis by Ian Morgan Cron and found a quote by Gandhi “Seek to be the change you wish to see in the world”. That really hit me strong and since I’ve seen it on a church billboard and know you are using it, all within a few weeks. I’m getting ready for a battle and tightening my boot straps to face people that are dream killers. Being the change isn’t easy yet, every little bit of encouragement will get you a little closer to the dream that your meant to fulfill. Thank you for caring to help lead this country.

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