The Role of Leadership
Even before the first issue of Leadership Excellence was published 25 years ago in May 1984, I was working with Stephen R. Covey on articles and white papers that would later appear in chapters of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Principle-Centered Leadership books. Indeed, the impetus behind publishing the monthly magazine was to facilitate development of these books and promote the practice of principled leadership-leading people based on a set of “true north” principles and “natural laws.” We defined principles as basic tenets-fairness, justice, honesty, integrity, and trust-and self-evident, self-validating natural laws that are always there, always reliable, like the “true north” on a compass.
Covey and I agree on the point that real leadership development begins with the humble recognition that principles ultimately govern. We avoided using the words ethics and values because those words imply situational behaviors, subjective beliefs, social mores, cultural norms, or relative truths-preferring instead to talk about universal principles and natural laws that are more absolute, impersonal, factual, objective, and self-evident.
You may think that when most people talk about values they mean these universal principles, but they are referring to what they value. As evidenced in the news daily, the lifestyle and practices of most leaders are governed by situational and value-based maps, not a principle-centered compass.
The willingness to subordinate values to universal principles and to align roles, goals, plans, and activities with them often takes a crisis: recession, downsizing, loss of job, divorce, strained relationships, lost accounts, or a health crisis. Otherwise, we tend to be busy doing good, easy, or routine things, never stopping to ask if we are doing what matters most. The good then becomes the enemy of the best.
When you have entrenched personal interests and organizational politics, when you set up your self-generated or socially-validated value systems and then develop missions and goals based on what you value, you tend to become a law unto yourself. You try to impress, not bless. Your paradigms and processes never produce desired results because they are based on illusions, slogans, programs-of-the-month, and personality-based success strategies. To align your life and leadership with “true north” principles, you need to keep in touch with something deeper than your thoughts and more reliable than your values. Conscience connects you with the wisdom of the ages and of the heart. This internal guidance system enables you to sense when you act in ways that are contrary to “true north” principles.
Some leaders say that expediencies require lies, cover-ups, deceit, or game-playing. And some “trusted advisers” -such as PR agents, accountants, and legal counselors-say, “This will be political suicide,” or “This will be bad for our image or bottom line.” Hence, many leaders take a departmental or compartmental approach rather than an integrated, organic, principled approach to ethics. They favor local politics and charismatic personalities over universal principles. When you operate by internal compass, you find that moral options open up to you.
The Role of Leadership
Great leaders ensure that each person is committed to a shared vision, direction, purpose, principles, and priorities. Everyone is then oriented to “true north,” on the same page, which releases talent and energy. In low-trust cultures, leaders either rely on control or have loose cannons everywhere, all pointing in different directions and saying, “This is north.” They lack a common vision and set of principles. Lighthouse principles never change. They are classic, enduring, universal, timeless. This turbulent economy has dissolved old lines of positional authority and elevated moral authority based on character and competence.
To be highly effective today, leaders need to be clearly focused on purpose, centered on principles, and execute on priorities. Sadly, even when the mission statement is hanging on the wall, people wander in contention and confusion as they rarely agree on what constitutes “true north.” Focusing on principles unleashes talent and energy and creates a culture where each person has an internal compass, shares a common focus, and executes around priorities.
Principle-centered leaders integrate principles into structures and systems. People who don’t honor these principles don’t stay-they either shape up or ship out. New hires are told: “If you join us, you’ll need to live by these principles-or your work here will be temporary.” People soon realize that the principle-centered mission isn’t just about words and slogans. This is the constitution by which every person is evaluated. When you apply the principles consistently, they become behavioral habits. Making and keeping promises is one way to make deposits in your personal integrity account-and in the emotional bank accounts of others.
Only principle-centered leaders who work from the inside out can create a principle-centered culture. Great leaders are loyal to principles. They put principles at the center of their relationships with others, their agreements and contacts, their management processes, and their mission statements. Since organizations are organic, great leaders nurture people like plants, creating the right conditions for growth. We need humility to acknowledge that principles govern, and the wisdom to align with those principles in the face of powerful forces and habits.
All leaders need to ask: “What is this company really about? And what are the principles we’re going to live and work by?” The key to long-term success is learning to align with “true north” principles, working at leadership from the inside out, and being proactive to become an island of excellence-and to leaven the team. Principle-centered leaders align their value system, lifestyle, direction, and habits with timeless principles.
as published in May 2009 Leadership Excellence
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