Foot and mouth – the basis for great leadership

30 Jan
January 30, 2014

In previous posts I’ve talked about some of the key issues that make a great leader.  In this short post I’d like to focus on one area – foot and mouth.

We normally associate foot and mouth with the disease that reputedly cost the UK £8 billion in 2001 but for this post I’d like to use it to mean something different – something positive – and something associated with leadership.

I use the term foot and mouth to describe what a leader says – ‘the mouth’ – and what they actually do – ‘the foot’.  Put simply, do leaders act and travel in the same direction as the words they espouse?

In one old Video Arts programme I recall a scene where the boss (John Cleese) makes some wonderful speech and ends with the words “ … and my door is always open…” before turning around, walking into his office and closing the door!

Leaders need to ensure that they do what they say they will do.  This isn’t rocket science; this is simple.  Here are three key things to bear in mind.

  • Model the behaviour you want to see from others  If you want people to behave in a particular way then make sure you do it – all the time.  As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Become the change you wish to see in the world.”
  • If you make a rule or design a process, follow it As the old saying goes, “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”  Leaders who say costs need to be cut but still spend lavishly on expenses will be found out.  Follow the rules you expect others to follow.
  • Do what you say you’re going to do – Don’t make promises you can’t keep.  If you say you’ll do it then do it.  The more this happens, the more people will trust your leadership.

I also wrote about storytelling within organisations and this is where you’ll readily find out if the leaders are following the foot and mouth approach.  I once did some work for IKEA, which was founded by Ingvar Kamprand, and the stories about his foot and mouth were legendary.  IKEA is fastidious about not wasting resources.  Here are two stories about Ingvar that show the true foot and mouth connection:

A new store had just opened in the UK and Ingvar came to visit.  His first words to the store manager when he arrived at 7am was that the local bus service was atrocious and they needed to do something to fix it.  A man worth £billions who arrived on the local bus – that’s not wasting resources.

Ingvar was asked to open a public building in his home town in Sweden.  Faced with the ubiquitous ribbon and scissors to declare the building open, Ingvar gave his speech, handed the scissors to a local official and then untied the ribbon, rolled it up and handed it to the mayor with the words: “You can use that again.”  True alignment of foot and mouth.


As leaders we’re called upon to perform dozens of tasks each day but unless our words and actions – our foot and mouth – are aligned then we will never achieve the results, behaviours or respect we need.

Call to action

Next time you want to really change something or drive the correct behaviour think about foot and mouth and challenge yourself to ensure that your words and actions are aligned.

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