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.”

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.

The Fallacy of Authority

authoritySimply put, leadership is the ability to influence others.

Ironically, however, the ability to influence others, either in an organization or in the political arena, ultimately doesn’t depend on an individual’s title or position of authority. In fact, those in positions of “authority” often confuse their ability to inflict their will on others (where authorized by their position or title) as a “right” of leadership. This is frequently the case with new managers and those whose motivation for leadership is based on a desire for authority in the form of personal control and power.

These authoritarian relationships may command respect in a superficial sense, but are void of trust and respect. They are based solely on fear rather than empowerment and personal ownership, and offer no provision for alignment of ideas or ideals. In this self-centric mindset, the emphasis on success is internal. The success of both subordinate individuals and the team is viewed by the manager as being dependent upon his or her personal success. These managers tend to believe that in order to validate their own value to the organization they must make themselves essential to the success of the team.

I see this in teams that are largely dysfunctional when the leader is absent. Decisions cannot be made without the manager’s consent. Personal ownership and accountability is stifled and autonomy is restricted. There is little or no basis of trust in the competence and discretion of the team members. This type of manager hordes power, controls rather than leads, and lacks the self confidence to allow subordinates or the entire team to excel in his absence. They make the success of their team completely dependent upon their presence and participation.

I believe that just the opposite is true of superior leaders – that the true measure of success for a leader is not how necessary he is to the team, but in fact how unnecessary he is. This might sound radical or counter-intuitive, but if a leader has truly done his job, the people who work for him should be able to function autonomously for an extended period of time without the necessity of his direct supervision. They should all be aligned both individually and collectively with the organizational vision and goals. They should each have a strong sense of personal ownership and accountability, both to their leader and to each other. They should exhibit integrity and self-discipline. They should be enthusiastic and self-motivated. And finally, they should have a balanced sense of selflessness (teamwork) and drive for personal achievement. This is the very essence of a high performing team, and the best managers and strongest leaders, in effect, actually make themselves less and less integral as their teams become more and more self-sufficient.

The ability to influence others is a powerful and awesome responsibility. Effective, superior leadership, under which individual and team performance is developed and cultivated to its highest potential, requires uncommon, illusive, and perhaps innate personal qualities.  It requires confidence and vision with a strong sense of purpose.  It requires courage, discipline, and dedication to the development of others.  It requires authority without authoritarianism.  Superior leaders nurture cooperation instead of mandating compliance.  They build consensus and create a culture of alignment in which every member shares in the ownership and accountability.

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.

Professional Effectiveness or Personal Fortitude?

Chances are you’ve at some point known or worked with someone who has endured a significant personal crisis.  Perhaps it was a nasty divorce, a life-threatening personal or family illness, the loss of a spouse or child, or a similar life event that turned their world upside down.

I lost my father to a heart attack just weeks after I turned 17 years old and days before I started my senior year of high school.  I can still remember the numbness I felt as I went to school that fall, surrounded by friends whose lives were blissfully unchanged while my own was irreversibly altered.  But as difficult as it was, I persevered.  It could even be argued that it was easy for me to move forward simply because I still had my entire life before me.  But I doubt I considered that at the time.  No, I persevered because there was simply nothing else I could do.  I couldn’t reverse or change what had happened.  Like it or not, I could only adapt and move on.

As bystanders – family, friends, and co-workers, we admire the strength of those who have suffered tragedy and yet are somehow able to keep going.  Because we can only imagine their grief and anxiety, we marvel at their ability to continue doing the simplest of daily activities and can hardly understand how they’re able to keep coming to work or to class.  The fact is, like me at age 17, they do it because there is simply nothing else they can do.  They adapt and move on because there is no other option.  They have no choice.  Bills still have to be paid, mouths still have to be fed – the responsibilities of life don’t stop.

It’s human nature to sympathize with people in these situations, and there is nothing wrong with that.  But I think it’s easy to confuse sympathy with admiration, and there is an important distinction between the two.  At the risk of sounding coldhearted, to admire someone who continues to live and work after a tragedy is like admiring a sailor who swims after his boat sinks.  Do we admire him for not giving up and drowning?  Do we admire his courage?  Truth be told, most of us probably do; after all, we’re inspired by stories of perseverance and love to cheer for the underdog.   But again, what choice does he have?  He can swim and live or he can sink and die – not much of a choice.  It’s a simplistic comparison, but I think it relevant nonetheless.

The point I want to make is we have such a natural inclination to admire those who overcome tragedy, we often let it cloud the rest of our judgment about the individual.  Specifically, it’s easy to confuse what we perceive as personal fortitude with the reality of professional effectiveness.  Surely we’re inclined to assess the individual’s performance more generously in light of the adversity they’ve faced, and this is certainly the right thing to do temporarily while the person heals.  After all, no one can be expected to perform at full capacity either during or in the aftermath of a personal crisis.  But that’s not what I’m talking about.  I’m referring to the tendency to allow our permanent perception of the individual to be skewed due to whatever past tragedy they’ve endured – confusing their fortitude and resilience in moving on with their ongoing effectiveness in their job.

In short, personal fortitude is ultimately no substitute for, and is indeed in this context only marginally related to, good performance.  It’s not for me to say how long a person should be allowed to recover from a crisis.  That depends on the individual, situation, and circumstances.  However, regardless of whatever tragedy the individual has suffered in the past (or even presently endures), eventually his or her performance and professional effectiveness must be judged on its merit.  We can admire their strength and perseverance, but that alone is a poor substitution for meaningful achievement.

The Social Construct of Morality

Joining the ranks of religion and politics, morality has quietly become a minefield to be publicly avoided at all costs.  Discussion on the matter, let alone debate, is just not politically correct; someone is sure to be offended.  Others might disagree, but I assert that morality, once commonly guided by absolute principles broadly accepted by society, has gradually evolved to a matter of individual preference.  I personally believe that matters of preference are subject to compromise, while matters of principle should be firmly upheld.  The problems begin when my principles differ from yours.  While my intent here is not to impose my ideology, I do want to explore the cultural inconsistencies in the interpretation of right and wrong within our society.  To that end, I pose these questions as food for thought and comment:

Should the foundation of morality be based on an absolute – a definitively established set of ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’, or should it be left to the interpretation of individuals or larger society groups?  Should these cultural standards be established or affirmed, recognizing that not everyone will be in agreement?  Do we let the majority decide, or do we default to the lowest common denominator within our culture – the individual?

I’m using the term ‘lowest common denominator’ in the context of contrasting two ends of the spectrum for judgment over what is and is not acceptable, i.e., morally right.  By that I am referring to an accepted societal viewpoint in which the wishes/rights of individuals have priority over those of a larger population.  I’m drilling down to the idea of ‘individual rights’ as the lowest level driver of moral authority, assuming ‘rights’ are interpreted in the strictest sense.  I’m also using the concept of right and wrong in the same context as morality, since by definition, morality is the principles of right and wrong in behavior.

The fact is, belief and value systems within our culture vary so greatly that there is an enormous gap between what most of us believe as individuals and the reality that exists within our society.  Despite what many would assert should be, I don’t think a consensus on ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ truly exists in our culture because we simply cannot agree on the boundaries.  Sure, there are certain actions that are almost universally considered taboo, but the waters get murky when you start talking about simpler issues of right or wrong.  Subsequently, no one is satisfied.  We assess issues and behaviors, etc., based on our personal perspective, recognizing the influence that our experiences, beliefs, and shifting cultural views have on us.  Perhaps the most commonly accepted concession is that what is ‘right’ for one person or group may not be so for another.

As a society of like minded people (I’m talking in the broadest sense), we’ve traditionally made sweeping cultural decisions about what is considered right and wrong.  In the age of political correctness, those decisions are being challenged by those who believe the ‘one’ is just as important as the ‘many.’  Priority of designated ‘rights’ has shifted away from the absolute and/or cultural majority to individuals and small groups with interests that do not conform to traditional norms.  Current cultural pressure dictates that we are no longer supposed to judge right or wrong whenever there is the potential that an individual or group might take offense or in some way be repressed.

Some would argue that morality is and should be a social construct.  That concept is indeed at the heart of the questions I’m posing.  Since defining morality as a social construct implies that there are culturally established standards of right and wrong, how then should this morality be imposed upon society, when by doing so, it may in fact conflict with the principles and values of those in disagreement?

In a discussion on this subject several years ago, a friend of mine argued that cultures judge right and wrong at will while governments protect the rights of individuals.  I don’t entirely agree with this, although I think I understand what he was getting at.  Cultures do define and judge right and wrong, however, governments obviously do not always protect individual rights.  The legal imposition of morality is in constant flux and the monitoring and protection of affected ‘rights’ depends on a host of social and political factors, all of which vary by culture vis-à-vis country.  I would point out that even in the U.S., public perception of certain assumed rights is itself frequently a cultural misconception, based on popular assumption but with no specific legal basis.  Simply put, just because we think we deserve something doesn’t mean we’re legally entitled to it, and having a voice doesn’t always equate to having a vote.

That same friend also asserted that “tyranny of the masses precludes justice and fairness” in the application of moral constructs imposed upon broader society.  Assuming that’s true, where then is the demarcation between social morality and individual rights?  How exactly should fairness be defined?  Given the imposition of social/cultural morality on the broader population, exactly how and where is the line drawn when a generally accepted social ‘good’ conflicts with the perceived rights of a smaller group within that population?

My point is our individual concept of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is founded entirely through our personal perspective, which is a product of our experiences, environment, religious beliefs, and cultural influences.  When does the determination of ‘right’ by the majority justify decisions that adversely impact the minority?  I think we’d all agree that it sometimes does.  Perhaps the bigger question is should it?  Is there in fact an absolute truth that supersedes an inconsistent socially constructed morality?

I think our society today frequently confuses its beliefs with its desires, or more accurately, we shape our beliefs to conveniently fit our desires.  More to the point, we allow our preferences to shape our principles instead of the other way around.  We also confuse our freedoms with rights.  As a result, everyone creates his or her own reality.  In my reality are my perceptions of right and wrong.  There are people who agree with (i.e., share) my perceptions, and people who do not.  Consequently, there are multiple social moralities on any given issue.

It’s unfortunate that we’ve been so programmed to embrace everyone else’s opinions and beliefs, we’ve compromised our own principles in the process.  I’m not suggesting that anyone should be intolerant or judgmental, but I think the terms are often used as a convenient weapon against those who philosophically disagree.  There is nothing wrong with standing up for what you believe in, even when it’s not politically or socially correct.  In fact, I believe that by adhering to the rules of political correctness under the premise of ‘not offending anyone’, we’ve completely prostituted ourselves to a homogeneous culture where people are persecuted for defending a principle that conflicts with the preference of others.  There are many people who are not concerned by that, so maybe I’m being cynical.  I just have a hard time accepting that actions and behaviors should be justified based on whether they pass the ‘doesn’t harm anyone’ test.  Shouldn’t there be some better criteria for judging the morality of what we think and do?

We live in an age of anarchy – not political anarchy, but social and cultural anarchy.  Everyone is encouraged to ‘do their own thing’, whatever that thing may be – and it’s all supposed to be okay so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone or infringe upon anyone else’s rights.  It’s an inconsistent premise at best and I don’t buy it.  When 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.

Actions, whether by individuals or societies, have repercussions.  Our decisions and behaviors, whether in public or in private, slowly shape the world in which we live, and ultimately influence who we are.  We create our own cultures, just as we create our own realities.  Whether you believe in a single authority or cultural evolution, there are many social moralities.  The trouble with that is, none are right, some are right, all are right.  It all depends on your perspective.