True Measure of a Leader

Early in my career, I had the privilege of working for an outstanding organization; a place I believed I would work for my entire career.  Our organization was not only seen as the leading provider of services in our local community, but we were also the flagship of a corporation that provided similar services nationwide.

It was everything I wanted in an employer; opportunities to learn and grow, provision of services with stellar outcomes, and a team of very talented, committed, and hardworking people. It was truly a great place to work!

Our CEO was a shrewd man; personable, engaging, and able to rally the troops every time he spoke. He was smart, visionary, and incredibly competent. He understood our business and seemed to have an uncanny ability to forecast and respond to business challenges. He led a fledgling hospital to a place of unprecedented prominence and by all accounts was a great leader.

Today, that organization is closed and its end was like something out of a Grisham novel. One morning to everyone’s surprise, FBI agents entered the building and confiscated files, seized computers, escorted  employees and patients out of the building, and placed a large chain and lock on the front doors. As it turned out, the organization I loved for so many years had been a part of a large Medicaid scam; defrauding the government of millions of dollars. The actions of a few violated the trust of employees, the community, and the children and families we served.

How does an organization with a stellar reputation come to such a sad end? How does a CEO manage to present one persona to the public while presenting something completely different behind closed doors? What could account for an entire leadership team remaining silent while wrong-doing is occurring? What is the measure of a true leader?

So here’s the Four One One…

What happened to us and countless organizations since then was a failure of leadership. The CEO and his leadership team abused their power and privilege by putting their own interests above the interests of patients, employees, and the community. As hard as it is to imagine, not a single person possessed the managerial courage to take a stand against the illegal, immoral, and unethical behavior that eventually led to the collapse of the organization. It was a monumental failure of character.

The True Measure of a Leader

Psalm 78:72 provides a fascinating description of the leadership of King David. It reads “And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them.” Embedded in this verse are the two fundamental components of great leadership: Character or “integrity of heart” and Competency or “skillful hands.”

By all accounts our CEO was a great leader, nevertheless he proved to be an utter failure because he possessed plenty of competency, but very little character; skillful hands, but no integrity of heart. In his seminal work, The Ascent of a Leader, Bill Thrall wrote, “…leaders eventually falter when their skill development outpaces their character development.”  Truly great leaders possess a healthy dose of both character and competency. It is, however, their character that determines how they use their competency and modulates their use of power.

Leadership Character

Who you are as a leader is far more critical than any particular competency you may possess. Allow me to repeat what I believe is the most important statement in today’s post; who you are as a leader is far more critical than any particular competency you may possess. Unfortunately, leadership development programs focus heavily on competency to the unfortunate exclusion of character. “The dysfunctions of many leaders are rooted in a common reality: their capacities have been extensively trained while their character has been merely presumed” (The Ascent of a Leader).

Think of it this way, it was failed character as opposed to competency that brought down Enron.  It was a failure of character that led to the accounting cover-up by Arthur Andersen. It was lack of character that defined the actions of Presidents Clinton and Nixon. History has taught us leadership failure is rarely about competency, and frequently about character.

Character First

Let’s return to the description of King David. Note that it begins by first focusing on his heart; seemingly signifying that being a true leader—one who people follow by choice—begins with the heart. It is indeed your character that will keep your team on board and engaged when the odds of success seem out of reach. It is your character that allows your team to extend you the benefit of the doubt when your actions are called into question. It is your character that will allow your team to provide you a second chance when you make a mistake. Leadership character is the hallmark of great leaders!

Actions, Habits, and Character Development

True leadership character develops over time and is demonstrated through a series of deliberate and intentional steps that eventually become habits. These habits solidify your character and define your success as a leader. As someone once wrote:

 Watch your thoughts, for they become words.

Watch your words, for they become actions.

Watch your actions, for they become habits.

Watch your habits, for they become character.

Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.

Clearly there’s no three step process to character development. Character is demonstrated by our actions, yet rooted in our beliefs. Nevertheless, I do believe there are actions that are difficult to fake over time. These actions develop character when practiced over a lifetime.

  1. Think of Others First: The word shepherd was used to describe King David, so like a shepherd consider and respond to the needs of the team even when it conflicts with your personal needs.  
  2. Don’t Shy Away From the Mirror: Create an environment where vulnerability flourishes. Do this by encouraging your team to hold a mirror in front of you so that you can see the inconsistencies between your words and your deeds. Listening and responding to their feedback will prove invaluable as you attempt to build the habits that become your character.
  3. Take the High Road: Treat people with the dignity they deserve; even when their actions don’t indicate they deserve it.

Back to Basics

 “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:9

With so much written on the subject of leadership, it can be challenging to identify the right pathway to success. Personally, I am always searching and exploring the topic in hopes of finding a nugget of truth to apply to my life and make a more positive impact on my team. Over the years, however, I have reached the conclusion that oftentimes what I am studying is not a new concept or construct, but rather a repackaging of a former idea that has been modernized for a new audience. I have found that in reality there is nothing new under the sun.

Now before you think I have gone off the deep end, please know that I am in no way attempting to discourage you from studying in order to perfect your craft, quite the opposite actually. In my opinion, the restatement of an old idea both validates and demonstrates its value. It’s survival of the test of time increases its relevance and provides a firm foundation for the current generation of leaders.  I am indebted to the great leadership writers of our generation.

Perhaps, however, this repurposing of old ideas is a way of saying that we need less newfangled epiphanies and more return to the basics. Maybe our greatest success as leaders lies in our ability to embrace the simple over the complex, and to remain faithful to a set of tried and true fundamentals.

So here’s the Four One One…

If you want a team that follows you by choice, let the following serve as the four cornerstones of your leadership…

Others First

As simple as it sounds the “others first” attitude stands as the great differentiator between good leaders and great leaders. Always remember, your position carries with it a great deal of power; making it easy to focus on your needs, your success, and what you can accomplish. Great leaders, by contrast, seek the good of the team over their personal good. As Mark Miller writes in his book, The Heart of Leadership, “…your ever present question is not what can you do for yourself; rather it is how can you serve them. When decisions are made, you consider the organization and your people before you weigh the personal consequences.”

Your Word is Your Bond

Before the time of written contracts, a handshake or a spoken word was considered binding; whereas today, so called white lies, half-truths, and broken promises are the norm. As a leader, your words and your deeds must be inextricably linked. Failure to do so will erode your team’s trust and once trust is lost, it can be nearly impossible to recover.  “Be impeccable with your word. Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean.” Miguel Angel Ruiz, Author

Own Your Mistakes

Legendary Coach John Wooden wrote,” If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.” Perfection may be your goal; nevertheless mistakes will be made during your pursuit.  Your team will be willing to accept your short comings as long as you are willing to admit you have them. Your hard earned reputation can be easily lost when you blame others or make excuses for your mistakes. Application of the Three T’s will serve you well. They are Tell it all, Tell it fast, and Tell the Truth.

Block and Tackle

As a leader it is your responsibility to “block and tackle” for your team; identifying and removing obstacles from their path to success. You sit in the position of power and you must use it for the benefit of your team. Do they have training they need to be successful? Is there a process in place that hinders their ability to perform at a high level? Are there people in the organization making unrealistic demands on your team? Are there conflicting priorities that are immobilizing them?  It is your job as their leader to get answers to these questions, and then use your power to ensure their success. Always remember the immortal words of Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility.”