What does a great leader look like on the inside and why is it important? In this five-part series, we will be looking at “Great Leadership from the Inside Out” … because what is within you as a leader determines what comes out of your leadership.
“A Servant-Leader lives, loves, and leads by conscience – the inward moral sense of what is right and what is wrong.” So say James Sipe and Don Frick in their classic book Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership. Most of us would agree. We want to be known as leaders who lead by conscience; as people who have a strong inner moral compass. The challenge, of course, comes when we have to make tough decisions that may not necessarily bring near-term prosperity to the organization we lead.
Many ethical decisions are easy to make – usually because they are black and white. “Should we lie, cheat, and steal?” No, no, and no. But what about the decisions that are far more subtle in nature? What do you do when you can make good arguments for opposing courses of action? How about the times you don’t even realize that an ethical choice is involved in a decision? When confronted with these gray areas, servant-leaders shine because they persevere in their commitment to live, love, and lead by conscience.
Consider these (possibly familiar) examples:
- A high-value prospect you are courting in a competitive market casually asks if you can get their leadership team tickets to the Masters Tournament. It is not presented as a quid pro quo, but the implication is there.
- You have a sales rep who is out of this world … except that his co-workers wish he was out of their world because he is so difficult to work with. You know he is creating a toxic workplace, but you also know that he brings in a significant portion of your revenue.
- A client tells you not to send your invoice to the corporate office, but to a specific employee not connected with Accounting. You are confident you will get paid, but you wonder if everything is on the level with the request.
These are challenging situations precisely because they are not egregious in nature. It would not be hard to justify a “gift” of sports tickets to sweeten the deal for a prospect. It is certainly easier to tell the sales team to “suck it up” rather than confront your star sales rep with his inappropriate behavior. And as for the invoice, why should you worry about who gets it as long as you receive payment?
Yet, what you do as a leader in each of these scenarios sets the tone for your team and therefore contributes to the culture and reputation of your business. People are watching to see how you act. Will you – consistently and unreservedly – seek to make ethical decisions, even if the immediate result is less than optimal? When you do, though the short-term effect might be a small “ouch,” the long-term gain is confidence and respect from everyone who interacts with you, from your team members and colleagues to your vendors and customers. That translates into great business.
We’ve already said that the toughest moral choices are those in the gray area. To bring clarity to these cloudy situations:
- Rely on your company’s core values as a rock to anchor you. The core values your company has articulated can be an effective litmus test when making decisions. Remind yourself of your core values early and often, and reinforce them in front of your team.
- Arm yourself with people, inside or outside the company, who can act as independent sounding boards for you. Give these people “permission to speak freely” so they can call you back to the straight and narrow if you begin to wander off course.
- Create an environment where your team members know they can speak up without negative repercussions. You will likely need to communicate and re-communicate to your team that you want their feedback and input until people actually put it to the test and see how you react.
- Ask yourself and encourage others to ask probing questions. As we noted above, sometimes it can be hard to determine the true nature of a situation. The best way to make a solid assessment is to ask probing questions and engage in discussion. Poke and prod and look at it from all angles until you are certain of your decision.
Will you make mistakes? Yes, that is always a possibility. If you do, own it, apologize, fix it if possible, and move on. People don’t expect perfection – they desire integrity.
As a leader, you will often be called on to make decisions in the gray area. If you live, love, and lead by conscience, you can address even these difficult matters with confidence.