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Chris Christie's Helicopter Ride: When Perception Matters

Leadership is often a public act. It is even more public when you are an elected official.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is learning this lesson the hard way. As Al Kamen of the Washington Post reported, Christie took heat for using a state helicopter to watch his son's high school baseball game.

If Christie were a corporate bigwig no one outside the few attending the game would notice. But since Christie is an elected figure, and one who has championed fiscal restraint and slashed New Jersey's state expenditures, the rotor wash from the chopper has churned up headlines nationwide.

Personally, I think it is terrific that the governor took time out of his busy schedule to watch his son play ball. On the one hand it sends a good signal that parenthood matters. On the other hand, it's a slap in the face to the "little people" whose taxes pay for the governor's airlift.

As accounts of the governor's chopper trip play out in the media, one thing seems clear. As honorable as Christie may be as a Dad, he might sometimes be clueless to perceptions cast by a governor. So much so that he, and the Republican Party, reimbursed the state for the $3383 chopper ride.

Perception matters

For those of us who do not have a state helicopter at our disposal, the lesson is straightforward. Perception matters. As the saying goes, "The higher the monkey climbs the tree, the more you can see his ass." That is, the more pronounced your position, the more exposed you are to criticism.

Leaders may balk at the exposure but in time they learn to live with it. Leadership is a choice. No one forces you to take charge of other people but when you adopt the role then with it come responsibilities. You become the prime focus for your employees and very often you control their fate. This is even more evident for elected officials; the fate of the community lies within their control.

With leadership comes authority and it falls to the leader to use it wisely. I believe a leader's role is to do what is necessary to enable the organization to succeed.

Responsibility inherent in leadership also dictates that a leader consider how things seem to others. Specifically, how does what you do pass the smell test? Well-intentioned leaders can stumble over this issue. Likely Christie did not think twice about taking that chopper ride; in fact his staffers have noted that he uses the state helicopter less than his predecessors.

No matter! Using the chopper for private use, in a time of fiscal austerity of which he is the champion, does not look good. And he should have thought about it before he lifted off.

image courtesy of flickr user, david_shankbone