One great measure of the quality of a leader is how much that person demonstrates integrity.
That is an easy thing to say, but it is a bit harder to accomplish. Let’s pick apart the concept of integrity and see if we can find some usable handles.
First of all, integrity is easy to demonstrate when things are going well or according to plan. It is a simple matter of doing the right thing, and the right thing is obvious.
Integrity is most important when it is difficult to do or the right path is hard to define. It is in these moments when leaders have the ability to stand tall and radiate their integrity or duck the issue and do what seems expedient at the moment.
I call these times “Leadership moments of truth.”
Lou Holtz, the famous football coach had a remarkably simple philosophy of doing business. It consisted of three simple little rules: 1) Do Right, 2) Do the best you can, and 3) Treat others the way you would like to be treated.
The basic Do Right Rule means acting with integrity. If doing what is right is such a basic and easy thing, why am I even bothering to write about it? It’s simple.
Most leaders have a hard time figuring out what the right thing is. That is a stunning indictment to make, but I really believe it is true.
Reason: in the melee of everyday challenges, it is so easy to make a judgment that seems right under the circumstances, but when extrapolated to its logical conclusion it is really not ethical, or moral, or it is just plain dumb.
Leaders tend to rationalize.
I believe that most of the huge organizational scandals of the past started out as subtle value judgments by leaders in their organizations. There was a decision point where they could have taken path A or path B.
While path B was “squeaky clean” in terms of the ethics involved, path A was also perfectly logical and acceptable based on the rules in place at the time and was also somewhat more profitable than Path B.
The problem is that if path A was acceptable today, then A+ would be fine the next day, and A++ the next. Other people would get involved, and the practice would get more embedded into the culture.
Eventually, after a few years, it was clear that rules were being bent all over the place in order for the organization to look good to investors. There was no convenient way to roll back the ethical clock, nor was there any impetus.
Ultimately the practice, whether it was Enron’s disappearing assets or Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi Scheme, became too big to hide and things blew up. My contention is that these people were not intending to do bad things originally, they just got caught up in what Alan Greenspan called irrational exuberance and had no way to quit the abuse.
Of course, by the time things surfaced, they really were evil people doing evil things, but I believe it did not start out with those intentions. At the start I believe these leaders were truly blind to the origin of corruption that brought down their empires and bankrupt thousands of individuals in the process.
How can leaders protect themselves from getting caught up in a web of deception if they were originally blind to the problem? It’s simple, they needed to create a culture of transparency and trust whereby being a whistle blower was considered good.
Imagine if the culture in an organization was such that when someone (anyone) in the company was concerned about the ethics of current practice and he or she brought that concern to light, there would have been a reward rather than punishment.
To accomplish this, leaders need to reinforce candor, in every phase of operations. It has to be a recognized policy that seeing something amiss brings with it an obligation to speak up, but that is OK because speaking up will bring rewards.
If you doubt that whistle blowers are routinely punished, take the time to view this brief video by Bill Lloyd. He blew the whistle at his company and paid a heavy price for it.
Bill said, “Sometimes it’s going to hurt, but it says everything about who you are as a person.”
The concept or rewarding candor creates opportunities for leaders to see things that would otherwise be hidden and take corrective action before the tsunami gets started.
It also allows leaders to be fallible human beings and make mistakes without having them become a reason for them to spend the rest of their life in jail.
So here is a good test of your leadership ability. How transparent is your organization? Do you truly reward employees when they bring up things that do not seem right to them, or are they put down and punished?
Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow Inc., a company dedicated to growing leaders. He speaks and conducts seminars on building trust in organizations. He can be reached at email@example.com or 585-392-7763.