I used to be a walking contradiction. I was a professional who sported many tattoos. While the stigma still exists in the United States, it is fading fast. I am becoming normal. One in five people have ink in our country. It is a normal right of passage for many. We have multiple television programs dedicated to tattoo culture. Nonetheless, in certain industries, companies, or roles they are still frowned upon – but not much. Increasingly, tattoos are becoming a normal part of mainstream society. Fifty years ago they were seen only on criminals, bikers, and military personnel. Today tattoos are common among the ranks of doctors, lawyers, engineers, and every manner of successful professional.
I have invested over forty hours and thousands of dollars in my ink. As I reflect over my journey with tattoos, several interesting learning points pop into my mind that are integral to understanding successful leadership.
This is one of my favorites: don’t judge a book by its cover.
I am blessed to stand in front of many people each year to tell stories as a professional speaker. If you’re good at establishing rapport, it is quite amazing how many people will come up to you afterwards and surprise you with the candor in their personal stories. Sometimes they really want to show me their ink. This has lead to a few fun yet slightly awkward moments as an otherwise very professional looking person suddenly hikes her skirt or lifts his shirt so I can see a particular piece of ink. I admit that when it happens I am sometimes surprised. I shouldn’t be, but I am. Why? I was looking at them in their professional attire and, as much as I know better, I was stereotyping them as conservative professionals who don’t have ink.
Admittedly, I’m not surprised as much as I used to be, but the point is a good one. I recall one instance in Atlanta that nearly floored me. Keep in mind – I am bald, wear stud earrings, and have visible tattoos. I worked for a large consulting firm in midtown and lived a few blocks away. After work one day I walked home changed into jeans and a t-shirt and headed to a local watering hole to meet colleagues for happy hour. Upon arrival at the bar, I realized I was first to the scene. I had a momentary exchange with the bartender, a seemingly nice fellow I had never seen before. He delivered the draft been I ordered. During our brief conversation I mentioned I was waiting on friends. Soon enough, new customers drew his attention away.
A few minutes later the bartender returned and said, “Hey man, I think your friends might be here.” This was decidedly odd since I did not know him and he did not know my friends. He then pointed to a table in the corner of the bar. At the table a group of skinheads were sitting down to share a few drinks. They all wore t-shirts, jeans, and black boots – as did I that day. They all had shaved heads like mine. I politely explained to the bartender that I did not know them, while averting my eyes and praying those fellows would not come over and try to recruit me. With my luck, that would be just the moment when my colleagues would walk in, ensuring there would be an eventual office rumor that Todd runs with neo-Nazi skinheads. Not good.
Versions of this are not rare. People sometimes see my ink and ask me where I served. To which I reply, “Well, I was a bartender at Applebee’s in college.” I am happy to report that in my life I have had many colorful friends, which is why on more than once occasion I have found myself in an alternative entertainment establishment watching a drag show or burlesque show. On nearly every occasion this happens, a very nice gay man will walk up to me, hand me a beer, and strike up a conversation. I smile and accept the beer. I never tell them until at least the second round that I like the ladies. It’s funny, but it’s an interesting lesson. They see a man in that type of establishment, wearing earrings no less, and they stereotype. We all do it!
The point is simple, relying on stereotypes is a normal part of decision making and it should not be. It is a highly efficient, yet very dangerous cognitive trap that produces, on average, poor decisions. Great leaders know this, they think about it, and they talk about it – all of which are tactics to keep the idea of stereotypes “front of mind” so they are less likely to rely on them. The best leaders see past simplistic labels and get to know people as unique individuals. Better decisions inevitably follow.
I used to think about tattoos in and of themselves as cool social statements. Even though they are becoming commonplace, I feel as addicted as I did when I got my first one at age nineteen. Nonetheless, I think about them differently now. I increasing see tattoos as a tool, a lens through which you can think about many basic life lessons – lessons that can be useful in your career and in your life. The next time you see a heavily tattooed guy, don’t assume he is a deviant or an outcast. Maybe he is, or maybe it’s just me.