Don’t Let The Need For Affirmation Undermine Your Company’s Vision

1958550_296566357161058_1493398203_nUsually, the word “vision” in leadership brings to mind lofty, high level ideals – a long term strategic objective. But leaders with vision do more than align staff members with a company’s mission or rally the public around a common cause.

Visionary leaders focus on everyday objectives as well. They are optimistic and enthusiastic and inspire those around them. People naturally follow leaders who arouse their hopes just as surely as they reject anyone who is perpetually pessimistic. Have you ever known an effective leader who was lazy or constantly negative?

That’s not to say that visionary leaders operate in a vacuum. They cannot simply pretend that setbacks don’t occur or that challenges don’t exist. The reality of a given situation may very well present real and significant problems to be addressed. They have to be honest and forthright to stay credible. But rather than allowing the focus of the group to become fixed on the obstacles, they engage the team in developing productive and meaningful solutions.

Visionary leaders are passionate and purposeful about the work that they do and the objectives they seek. Indifference is contagious and erodes the credibility and effectiveness of a manager, so leaders demonstrating strength of vision must have the courage to challenge those around them, subordinates and superiors. In this context, ‘challenge’ means that visionary leaders question the validity of assumptions or reasoning of others, not to be obnoxious, but to better understand and facilitate meaningful two way communication and feedback. It’s a fine line to be sure, but if leaders are afraid to speak up, the flow of communication becomes so filtered that it is rendered meaningless, or worse, actually opposite of what was originally intended.

There’s a great book by George Washington University Professor, Jerry Harvey, called “The Abilene Paradox.” In it, Harvey illustrates the paradox in which a group of people collectively decide to pursue a course of action that none of them actually wants, however no one speaks up against it for fear of being the squeaky dissenting wheel. They each incorrectly assume everyone else wants to go along.

Just as visionary leaders must be willing to challenge those around them, so must they be willing to be challenged. How often do we solicit the opinion of others thinking we want information, when we really just want affirmation? That kind of confirmation feels good, but it doesn’t mean very much. It’s like telling the emperor that his new suit looks fantastic instead of pointing out that he’s walking around naked. And guess what often happens when the information we receive doesn’t quite align with the affirmation we were looking for? That’s right, the emperor is not happy… until he finally realizes that someone had the courage to be honest with him and act in his best interest.

I think it’s natural to prefer a response that validates rather than challenges, but there is tremendous value in constructive feedback. Visionary leaders check their ego at the door and rely on those they trust to be honest and provide candid information and insight. Their purpose is to make everyone around them better, but they also reap what they sow. Engaging others in an objective focused process makes them stronger, more effective, and more motivated. And that’s the whole idea.

“I don’t want any “yes-men” around me. I want everybody to tell me the truth even if it costs them their jobs.” ~Samuel Goldwyn

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If Every Fool Wore a Crown…

night sky scapeThe very concept of humility rarely crosses the mind of most people in positions of authority. It is simply not how we are typically conditioned to think. Our culture champions the loud, the bold, the brazen and ruthless. We live in a self-centric society. It’s the ‘me’ generation – self-absorbed, self-centered, entitled and narcissistic, demanding instant gratification and lacking concern for others. It’s every man for himself, every woman for herself.

It’s no surprise that humility is often interpreted as a sign of weakness, and those with a humble unassuming demeanor are perceived as lacking self-esteem or confidence. Quite the contrary, humility is the epitome of self-confidence, a comfortable assurance mindful of pretension and vanity. There’s a wonderful quote by William Temple that aptly sums it up…

“Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself than of other people, nor does it mean having a low opinion of your own gifts. It means freedom from thinking about yourself at all.” – William Temple

Contrary to the view of leadership that many managers maintain, superior leaders have a heart for service. But servitude in this context does not mean that leaders are subservient – they don’t wait on people, do their jobs for them, or clean up their messes. Servitude means that leaders work on behalf of the people they lead, serving the best interests of the individuals, team, customers, and organization. They provide guidance and coaching and continuity of vision and direction, delegate effectively, but also roll up their sleeves when appropriate.

Humble leaders constantly strive to better others. They don’t need to seek the spotlight of recognition for themselves, especially to the exclusion of others. Their success is defined not by being indispensable to the organization, but by leading others to self-sufficiency. The most effective leader is one who makes his or her own presence largely unnecessary on a minute by minute, day by day basis. They lead, empower, and cultivate an environment where personal ownership and alignment with organizational mission is the motivator, rather than mere managerial oversight.

Finally, leaders who understand the importance of humility also don’t abuse their authority. In fact, they understand the difference between having authority and being authoritative. Authority is like a sword. Those who are authoritative swing it indiscriminately, either to reinforce their position of power or through simple inexperience. New managers in particular have a dangerous tendency to let their freshly bestowed title go straight to their heads. They wield their title like a sword, without first establishing credibility and trust. These managers have not yet figured out that there is no correlation between title and authority beyond the implied presumption of power. Like trust and respect, the crown of true authority is influence, and influence is earned, not bestowed.

David Packard, the co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, exemplified humility in his leadership and management of his company. A man who avoided publicity, Packard is quoted as saying: “You shouldn’t gloat about anything you’ve done; you ought to keep going and find something better to do.”

Principles vs. Preferences: Are You a Disciplined Leader?

business-foundationSelf-discipline, resilience, and integrity all go hand in hand.  But in a much broader sense, the discipline that strong leaders demonstrate reflects much more than mere self-control.

Disciplined leaders must be able to consistently make decisions that are clear-headed, informed, and conclusive.  Their response to difficult and stressful situations is thoughtful and purposeful, never random or subjective, particularly in emotionally charged situations.  Objectives are communicated clearly and unambiguously. This is not always an easy thing to do, which is why self-discipline has such a profound impact on those around us.  To borrow (and modify) a quote from the world of sports… “Adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it.”  A firm, definite, and decisive leader demonstrates grace under pressure, very clearly reinforcing the perception that he or she is in complete control (of both the situation and his/her own emotions).

While disciplined leaders are by necessity decisive, they must at the same time exercise sound judgment. Emotions run high in times of crisis.  Most people intuitively look for someone to “do something” in emergencies. It requires great discipline to think before responding.  Any situation that requires action, whether a crisis, conflict, or everyday business decision, necessitates a thoughtful and measured response from a leader.  Knowledge and experience are necessary, even crucial.  But like a sword, they are only as effective as the person wielding them.

Leaders can, and should be, flexible when appropriate.  However, it is one thing to compromise on matters of preference, it is quite another to compromise on matters of principle. Principles are rooted in personal doctrine or institutional values, and are a specific basis for conduct or management. Preferences are simply a matter of who controls non-essentials, and are driven by experience and familiarity.

It is one thing to compromise on matters of preference, it is quite another to compromise on matters of principle.

Strong, disciplined leaders understand this difference.  Unfortunately, in a world where the boundaries of morality and ethics are deemed malleable and subject to individual interpretation, the concept of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ becomes driven by convenience and preference, lacking any principled bearing. As a consequence, the line between principle and preference is grayed. Principles are compromised for sake of appeasement or through capitulation to the path of least resistance.

It takes courage to draw a line in the sand, to stand up for what you believe.  Some consider this to be close-minded or prejudicial, even intolerant.  One thing is for sure.  Those in positions of influence weaken themselves as leaders whenever they compromise their principles.  Whether in the business world or politics, it is rare to find everyone in agreement.  This is not to say that leaders shouldn’t be appropriately questioned. Convictions that can’t be reasonably defended should be rightfully challenged.

In a world where the boundaries of morality and ethics are deemed malleable and subject to individual interpretation, the concept of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ becomes driven by convenience and preference, lacking any principled bearing.

Values vary and people come to different conclusions and form different beliefs.  It requires strength of conviction and great discipline to stay the course when faced with temptation to concede or compromise principles. However, people are far more willing to follow a principled and disciplined leader, even one with whom they disagree.  By contrast, no one will follow a leader they don’t trust or in whom they have no faith, leaders who fail to be true to themselves and the principles on which they claim to stand.

The Quiet Resolve of Uncommon Courage

On January 26, 1945, just weeks after receiving a battlefield promotion from staff sergeant to second lieutenant, Audie Murphy found himself a company commander in Holtzwihr, France. With temperatures in the teens and 24 inches of snow on the ground, Murphy’s unit was down to 19 of its original 128 men. Facing a German tank attack, Murphy ordered his men to retreat and then stood alone and wounded atop a burning half-track, manning a machine gun and directing artillery fire into the enemy position 100 feet in front of him. Asked by the artillery officer how close the Germans were to him, Murphy snapped back, “Hold the phone and I’ll let you talk to one.” The artillery fire and subsequent counter attack led by Murphy successfully repelled the Germans, and Audie was awarded the Medal of Honor for his courage under fire.

Murphy’s example of valor is uncommon, but it’s important to understand that his actions were not motivated out of a desire for personal advancement or notoriety. He was just 19 years old that January of 1945, having lied about his age and enlisted in the Amy at age 16. He didn’t set out to become a leader or a hero; he simply wanted to serve his country and protect the men in his unit. Prior to his promotion to lieutenant, Audie had already earned a Distinguished Service Cross and two Silver Stars as an enlisted man. In his later years he summed up his perspective on leadership succinctly, “Lead from the front.”

Military heroics such as Murphy’s provide obvious examples of courage. However, there is much more to courage than performing brave deeds. Courage manifests itself in many forms and in small, everyday ways. Sometimes courage is demonstrated on the field of battle where all the world may eventually bear witness. But other times it’s demonstrated in the boardroom or conference room, before colleagues and superiors. Sometimes courage is tested in the face of overwhelming peer pressure or public opinion, and sometimes it is quietly demonstrated in defense of others who are not even aware.

It’s not enough that we do our best; sometimes we have to do what’s required. – Winston Churchill

No one would argue that courage is often the catalyst for action. But at times, it also takes courage to be patient, to stand down rather than act immediately, especially when confronted with adversity. Knowing when to intervene and when to let events run their course comes with experience and confidence. Courageous leaders calmly assess the situation and explore alternatives, even as others respond emotionally, demanding swift action. This measured response to adversity requires discipline and the courage.

Courageous leaders take the initiative and act in the best interest of others, regardless of their own position or level of authority. They don’t wait to be told, or (necessarily) wait to ask permission. I once worked for someone who taught me that when confronted with a crisis, it’s better to act and be wrong than just sit back and do nothing. I believe that to be generally true, but it’s also important to note that sometimes acting in the best interest of others means allowing them to fail so that they might learn from the experience. Courageous leaders make decisions that serve the greatest long term good, even at the expense of short term personal gain.

Courage keeps trudging along regardless of obstacles, sometimes in the face of fear, but always out of conviction for what is right, for what needs to be done. A popular quote states that character is revealed in the actions taken when no one is looking. I would add that courage provides the resolve.

Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, “I will try again tomorrow.” – Mary Anne Radmacher

Character, Integrity, and the Authority of Conviction

father-and-childJohn Adams wrote. “Because power corrupts, society’s demands for moral authority and character increase as the importance of the position increases.”

Strength of character is one of the most important attributes of a leader, but how is character evidenced in day to day business? Certainly, effective leaders must have credibility, the trust and confidence of others, and key to credibility is a strong sense of integrity. Integrity is built on honesty and the consistent, steadfast adherence to established principles and standards. Strong leadership is dependent upon character, and character is certainly measured, if not defined, by integrity.

Perhaps the greatest risk to the integrity of a leader is temptation. In the eyes of employees, team members, students, constituents, and even family members, leaders are held to a higher ethical standard. Leaders are expected to conduct themselves in a manner that is measured and fair and beyond reproach. Of course in reality, leaders are fallible humans, subject to the same temptations, distractions, and vices as everyone else. But the perception and expectation that leaders will put principles before self-interest persists nonetheless. For this reason, a strong sense of personal self-discipline is critical. Self-discipline ensures we act and make decisions based on principle rather than preference.

This is one area where both our political and business leaders tend to fail us. We are bombarded on a daily basis with headlines that expose fraud, corruption, scandal, and abuse of power on some level. The politics of power and influence drive many of the decisions that are made, policies that are introduced, even promotions that take place. It’s quite a chess game, the posturing and positioning, and with the underlying design to sustain or grow someone’s position of power and influence.

Certainly not all leaders are self-serving. But the fact is that any lack of integrity we see in our leaders is extremely destructive to their credibility. We quickly lose faith in both their ability to effectively lead and perhaps the principles for which they stand.

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” — Abraham Lincoln

Whether a boss, an elected official, or an entire company or industry, the character of our leaders is always under a public microscope. Transgressions may be headlined on the nightly news for all the world to see or quietly whispered between co-workers around the water fountain. At either extreme, the unfortunate consequence is an erosion of trust. Trust is a product of character and integrity, the mortar in the foundation on which effective leadership is built. Without trust, how long will anyone continue to embrace their vision and follow their lead?

If character is built upon a foundation of integrity, discipline, and trust, it’s framed with resilience and covered in unwavering conviction and confidence. Leaders must be strong and undaunted. However, voice of confidence should not be confused with voice of arrogance. Confidence is driven by a firm conviction in a vision, mission, or goal (an external focus). By contrast, ego, pride, and an inflated sense of self-importance all breed arrogance (an internal focus).

How many times have we answered a daughter or son’s “Why?” with, “Because I said so!” As a parent I can personally relate to that, but it is a great example of a authoritative response based on position instead of conviction. If a decision is based on objective criteria, would not a better response be a confident explanation designed to educate and foster trust?

“Conviction is worthless unless it is converted into conduct.”
― Thomas Carlyle

Strong leaders do not communicate from a perspective of position or title. They don’t have to. Quite the contrary, their voice of authority comes from the strength of conviction of right and wrong, not strength of ego. It’s a subtle distinction, but one that is extraordinarily important.

Finally, strength of character cannot be complete without sensitivity to the needs of others. Empathy is essential to compassion, sensitivity, and understanding. Leaders must be willing to give people room to fail as well as succeed. Everyone needs encouragement and reinforcement when they struggle. That’s why we coach and mentor. Those strong of character do not delight in the failure of others, they are burdened by it. The real distinction, however, is that they feel compelled to help.

Without Integrity, Credibility Dies

brian williamsSocial media has been ablaze this week with articles, comments, and creative memes about Brian Williams and the false statements he made about his experience reporting in Iraq in 2003.

Williams’ report, in and of itself, is pretty much meaningless. On the other hand, the significance of his lie permeates much deeper and broader than an event covered over a decade ago.

Americans are so obsessed with meaningless day-to-day nonsense – everything from Bruce Jenner’s gender confusion to what so and so wore last night on Scandal. People think less and less for themselves and rely far too heavily on what the news media tells them is important. The national news media in particular substantially influences what the public knows, thinks, and believes.

For the past couple of decades, the news media in this country have become far more involved in shaping the news, rather than reporting the news. What used to be valued as unbiased reporting has evolved into editorialized pandering to one ideal or another. Every US media outlet I can think of is shamelessly biased either left or right, although they are certainly loath to admit it. All of them, subtly if not overtly, promote their respective political and social agendas.

As the prime time anchor, Brian Williams is the voice of NBC news. As such, both his credibility as a journalist, and consequently the credibility of his entire organization, is now called into question, and rightly so. The credibility of every news organization should be called into question, not because Brian Williams lied, but because the presentation of the news in this country has become disingenuous, cropped and carefully presented in a particular context to deliberately shape public opinion.

We cannot become complacent and accept the blatant falsification of events that are documented and presented as factual, particularly from our news media. Brian Williams should step down permanently, and this incident should be a wake up call to the entire industry.

The Character of Leadership Competency Model

Leadership Competency Model Diagram

The Character of Leadership Competency Model – © Bryant Rice, 2013

The Character of Leadership Competency Model was developed through years of personal experience.  It was influenced by the thoughts and ideas from a multitude of sources, and shaped by real world application in my role as a leader, influencer, and developer of people.  I believe that the foundation of superior leadership is comprised of 5 essential core attributes – Character, Discipline, Humility, Courage, and Vision.

Naturally, there are also many essential behaviors that leaders must demonstrate.  Good communication is most often noted as an obvious example.  I certainly agree, however, this model is not intended to be a list of behaviors or habits.  It’s far more a reflection of the values and belief system that superior leaders model in their both their personal and professional lives.  These attributes represent the broadest measure of a leader’s effectiveness and success.

Character

  1. Trustworthy – Trust is a product of character and integrity, and is the foundation for effective leadership.
  2. Speaks with Authority – Leaders speak not out of arrogance (from a perspective of position or title, i.e., ego), but with unwavering conviction and confidence in their vision (truth).
  3. Integrity Above Reproach – Effective leaders must have credibility. This is built on honesty, steadfast principles and standards. Good leadership is a matter of character, and character is defined by integrity.
  4. Resilient – While having many weaknesses and limitations, leaders must be strong and stalwart.
  5. Empathetic – Essential to compassion, sensitivity, and understanding – leaders must give people room to fail as well as succeed. People need encouragement and reinforcement when they struggle. That’s why we coach.

Discipline

  1. Never Compromises Absolutes – It is one thing to compromise on matters of preference, it is quite another to compromise on matters of principle.
  2. Judgment – The application of wisdom. “Knowledge speaks, wisdom listens” (Jimi Hendrix)
  3. Definite and Decisive – Good leaders must be able to make decisions that are clear-headed, informed, and conclusive. The must also communicate objectives in a way that is articulate and specific.
  4. Knows How to Delegate – You simply cannot, and should not, do everything yourself. A few things demand hands-on attention – delegate the rest. Remember what it is you are working for.
  5. Self-Disciplined – Discipline ensures we operate by principle rather than emotion or personal desire.

Humility

  1. Humble – Good leaders are humble with a willingness to serve others first – employees, customers, and company. Competent leaders do not need to seek the spotlight of recognition. Their success is defined not by being indispensable to the organization, but by leading others to lead themselves. The most effective leader is one who makes his own presence unnecessary.
  2. Knows His Limitations – A leader who forgets his own weaknesses will inevitably fail.
  3. Knows When to Change His Mind – Good leaders are definite and decisive, but not inflexible. They do not perpetuate bad decisions (out of ego) and know when to adapt to changing circumstances.
  4. Admits Mistakes – Character and trust is strengthened when leaders admit and take ownership of mistakes.
  5. Does Not Abuse Authority – Having authority does not mean being authoritative.

Courage

  1. Takes Initiative – Acting in the best interest of others, regardless of position or authority.
  2. Doesn’t Run in Face of Opposition – Good leaders do not abdicate their role when challenged. They are steadfast and firm – demonstrating authority and grace under pressure.
  3. Courageous – People do not follow cowards. Character is tested under fire and leaders must demonstrate courage.
  4. Sets a Personal Example – Empowers others through personal actions and integrity – walking the talk.

Vision

  1. Strengthens Others – A leader’s purpose is to make everyone around him better – stronger, more effective, more motivated.
  2. Optimistic and Enthusiastic – Optimistic enthusiasm inspires people. Employees will naturally follow a leader who arouses their hopes, and they will just as surely reject anyone who is perpetually pessimistic.
  3. Focuses on Objectives – A leader focuses on objectives, not obstacles.
  4. Cultivates Loyalty – Through trust, integrity, respect, and selflessness
  5. Passionate – A strong leader cannot be detached or indifferent. He must be passionate and purposeful.
  6. Energetic – Have you ever known an effective leader who was lazy? Leaders must be industrious and enthusiastic.