Earlier in my career I witnessed first-hand the unraveling of a once promising technology company. It made some typical mistakes for a rapidly-growing start-up that it might have recovered from. Its greatest misstep, however, was misreporting of revenue, which, coupled with a few other ethically questionable practices led to its demise. It was sad of course that many (including me) lost their jobs and that investors and creditors (including me) lost a lot of money. Most unfortunate was that the company really had terrific products and terrific talent, but would never recover or fulfill the promise it once had. That episode was likely an early formative experience that influenced my mission twenty-some years later of “helping leaders and organizations live up to their promise.” “Living up to our promise” as organizations and leaders means attention to value and values, to doing things right and doing the right things, and to effectiveness and ethics. Over the course of serving as a consultant to organizations and their leaders for many years, I’ve made observations about what it takes for leaders and organizations to live up to their promise: Accountability, Identity, Authenticity and Alignment.
To be accountable and live up to our promise includes keeping our promises – including those we make to ourselves like New Year’s resolutions, getting fit, finding new employment, etc. Organizations also typically make “resolutions” or promises like increasing revenue, improving market share, reducing turnover and developing leaders; accountability means delivering on those promises as well. Living up to our promise and being fully accountable, however, includes not just delivering what we promised but also living up to our principles – how we commit to achieving our goals. As Walter Cronkite put it: “Success is more permanent when you achieve it without destroying your principles.” The failed technology company I referenced may have written some vague statements about integrity or ethics, but I don’t remember them, and especially as pressure increased it was readily important that those weren’t the commitments that mattered most.
When we are fully accountable we are also responsible stewards – of our own gifts and talents as well as the time, talent and tangible resources of our team and organization. We also take responsibility for our decisions and actions, consider our impact on others and exercise responsible stewardship of environmental resources. Being accountable means measuring what matters, and living up to our promise or potential in the fullest sense means measuring more than just financial results. It means paying attention to the impact of our decisions and actions on others – perhaps across the world or in future generations, and assessing whether we are the kind of person or organization we profess or hope to be.
Living up to our promise by living up to our principles implies that we know what our values are and what we stand for – a prerequisite for integrity. As Alexander Hamilton said: “If we don’t stand for something, we’ll fall for anything;” it’s easier to fudge ethically or to rationalize poor behavior if we haven’t first committed to how we want to accomplish goals and who we want to be. Not only ethical, but effective, leaders and organizations need to know who they are and what they stand for. Identity issues are often at the heart of organizational dysfunction – boards or board members that are not clear about the purpose or role of a board, for example, or an educational, health care or church institution that has lost site of its mission to teach, heal or minister because it is preoccupied with its margin over its mission. A clear, shared organizational identity includes clarity of mission, values, aims and strategies. Organizations and leaders with a healthy identity also know their own strengths so they can leverage them, as well as their limitations and vulnerabilities.
James A. Garfield said that “those who succeed best at public life are people who take the risk of standing by their convictions.” If we know who we are and what we believe, integrity – living up to our promise – requires the courage to say what we believe and to act on our convictions, even at a cost. Examples I’ve witnessed in client organizations include the sole dissenting voice of a board member standing up for what she believes is right, nurses reporting medication errors or bad physician behavior, the courage to confront disrespectful behavior with an otherwise top performer, and a public statement of support for an unpopular policy or leader.
Authentic leaders have convictions, but they are not afraid to hear dissenting, diverse or contrary points of view that may inform their version of “the truth” and possibly improve decisions. As Christopher Phillips said: “It is not enough to have the courage of your convictions, but you must also have the courage to have your convictions challenged.”
Authentic leaders and organizations cultivate “truth-telling” cultures that encourage saying what’s hard, voicing contrary opinions and expressing concern about decisions or actions anywhere in the organization. Max DePree believes that “the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.” Authentic leaders also help organizations and teams define reality and live up to their promise by directing attention to factors others may not see or acknowledge that could interfere with success or with being true to values. Just as the best sailors are those who sense a persistent wind shift first, our best leaders are those who first call attention to “inconvenient truths”.
People don’t listen to us speak as much as they watch our feet. Most important to a leader’s authenticity and credibility, perhaps, is that his “deed matches his creed” or that she “walks the talk.” If we expect people to be accountable, we must model accountability; if we expect people to live up to stated values we must model those values; if we expect people to be truthful even at a cost then we must do the same and reward that kind of honesty.
To “integrate” – a word sharing the same root as “integrity, means to bring together – to create a whole from parts. Like a gifted orchestra conductor, a true leader is able to create a kind of “harmony,” or unity, among sometimes disparate elements within a team or an organization and its stakeholders. And such a leader distinguishes “sameness” – where all are expected to be the same or march in step – from “unity”, which thrives on diversity and different perspectives to create a value-added mix. Alignment includes constantly integrating new information and realities with what we considered until then to be “truth,” and with what Jim Collins in From Good to Great calls our Core Ideology. Mr. Collins refers to this “Yin-Yang” process of aligning new realities with core ideology as “adaptive mechanisms,” and shares conclusive research demonstrating that organizations with that capacity create significantly greater market value over time.
To live up to our whole promise, we need to live up to our promise not only as “humans doing,” but as “humans being.” We need to avoid falling into those traps that might reflect advice to “get a life.” Leaders who demonstrate integrity – authentic leaders – seek alignment of who they are with who they are at work, and bring all of who they are to work; they don’t leave who they are at the door. Again – and this is easier said than done, integrity requires courage so that when we find we can no longer be who we are at work, we need to change the work, change whom we are working with or change where we are working. I remember Warren Bennis describing strong leaders as “tapestries of intentions;” what a wonderful metaphor! The many different “threads” in a strong leader’s life weave a pattern of purpose, values and intentions for all to see. If we break it down, this “tapestry,” or “integrity of design,” is much of what constitutes what some simply call “charisma.” Effective organizations that live up their promise are “tapestries of intentions” as well. Their “threads” include how and who they hire or fire, what kind of orientation and training people experience and how compensation is handled. The “pattern” of threads or intentions is less clear in dysfunctional organizations; there is no “integrity of design” – the threads do not reinforce the organizations’ stated mission, values or aims but instead send mixed signals.
In his book Integrity (Harper Perennial, 1996,) Stephen Carter expresses his belief that “integrity is perhaps the first among virtues that makes for good character; the rest of what we think matters very little if we lack essential integrity, the courage of our convictions.” I would add that integrity is among the first virtues that make for healthy cultures and effective organizations. Integrity is fundamental for “living up to our promise” as leaders, organizations and communities; it deserves “top billing” as a critical discipline and way of operating that can help us navigate conflicting demands in an ever-changing and complex world.
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