Leadership edge sounds enticing, doesn’t it? Well, it is — even to a baby. Now, don’t be put off by my use of my thirteen month old granddaughter as the example. Through her eyes you’ll discover the key to the leadership edge and what’s required to get it. Once you know, you’ll be forced to confront yourself with the question: Do I really want it? Am I willing to pay the price (because there is a price to pay)?
At thirteen months, Sylvia was learning to walk. She’d laugh and stretch her arms high and wide as if pushing for the finish line in an Olympic sprint, though her starting block was my living room couch and her destination, my outstretched arms. Once in range of her goal, she’d hurtle her little body towards me with never a doubt that I’d catch her. Over and over she’d repeat the action, knowing my arms would provide soft landing every time. She was clear about her destination and, at some level, she knew that I was committed to her well-being. In other words, Sylvia trusted me until I proved myself untrustworthy. Should that ever happen, God forbid, our relationship will be changed forever.
When you hear the names: Bernie Madoff, Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Martha Stewart, what word comes to mind? Thief? Liar? Cheater? It can certainly be argued that each of these people possess a high level of competence in their field, but competence alone wasn’t enough to gain a following and keep it. Due to egregious behavior resulting in significant loss of trust, none of them will ever be totally trusted by most people ever again. All suffered financially and relationally, and all watched their power to lead evaporate. In every case, personal reputation and public confidence eroded. Though none can ever reclaim the position they once held, it is possible for them to make a comeback, albeit, for most, chances are slim.
The focus of my work is helping leaders, sales professionals and entrepreneurs develop real influence. The very foundation of influence is trust – a tangible asset that can be developed through right action. Perhaps a better word, to be more encompassing, would be character.
The late Jim Rohn said of character, “Character isn’t something you were born with and can’t change, like your fingerprints. It’s something you must take responsibility for forming.” Character isn’t something that can be contrived, but rather it’s something you cultivate over the course of your lifetime through every experience and every decision that you make. The greater your sense of responsibility and accountability, the greater your character.
Over the past year I found myself struggling with a crisis of character because I had yet to finish writing a book on leadership that I had promised to finish two years ago. My final interviews were completed in early 2013, and though I knew it would get done, I was bothered by the fact that, at the time, it was still incomplete. A gnawing sensation of something left undone resulted in sleepless nights and an overwhelming sense of personal disappointment in me. Though a well-known leadership coach recommended that I abandon the project and be okay with that, I simply could not abandon the people who opened their lives to me in an interview with the promise of a forthcoming book. My character was at stake. Would I be courageous and face what seemed like a daunting task or slink away? Would I muster the courage and discipline and fortitude to fulfill on a promise to do what I said I would do, or would I cave in and give up? I’m happy to say that at this time, the book is completed and will finally be published in January, 2016.
Former president, Ronald Reagan, stated it clearly when he said, “The character that takes command in moments of crucial choices has already been determined. It has been determined by a thousand other choices made earlier in seemingly unimportant moments. It has been determined by all the little choices of years past, by all those times when the voice of conscience was at war with the voice of temptation, whispering the lie that it really doesn’t matter. It has been determined by all the day-to-day decisions made when life seemed easy and crises seemed far away—the decisions that, piece by piece, bit by bit, developed habits of discipline or of laziness, habits of self-sacrifice or of self-indulgence, habits of duty and honor and integrity—or dishonor and shame.”
Why do I bring up the subject of my book? Because at the core of leadership is character built on truth – doing what we say we will do. If I do what I say I will do, you will trust me to be a person of my word. Being a person others can trust is at the core of who we are. I can hear some of you saying, “Oh, but Mary Jane, aren’t you being kind of hard on yourself? Isn’t an unfinished book different?” No. Because if we can’t trust ourselves to do what we say we’ll do, how can we expect others to trust us when they’re involved and the decisions we make will affect their lives? Trust begins by being honest with ourselves.
A leader is someone who sells people on a compelling, worthwhile vision and then follows through on that vision in such a way that others trust the leader to take them there. Your character is at the heart of people’s willingness to set aside their own agendas and take up yours. They have to believe that you are who you say you are and that you will do what you say you will do. They have to believe that you have their best interests at heart. They have to believe that you are a man or woman of truth and that you practice what you preach — every day in every action that you take, big or small. They have to believe that you will do the right thing in the right way for the right reason.
Character is who you are when no one is watching or is the wiser. For example, a man told me recently that he’d visited a big box discount store to buy a new Mac computer because it was on sale at 50% off. When he got to the checkout lane, the clerk didn’t realize that the computer had already been marked down, and gave the man an additional 50% off. The man knew what had happened, but said nothing. He then walked out of the store with a brand new computer for which he had only paid 25% of the original price. He was bragging about having purchased the computer for so little. What he didn’t know was that my estimation of him plummeted. If he’d knowingly cheat the store out of money due to a mistake made by someone else, where else would he be willing to cheat?
Unfortunately, the man mentioned above is not alone. According to research, 75% of business students and 63% of medical and law students said that they cheated to improve their odds of getting into graduate school. And, the list goes on. If this example is indicative of what goes on in organizations today, and it is, no wonder we are hearing so much about a crisis of leadership.
Who are you – really? It’s important to know the answer to this question because others certainly do. You can’t hide your character. Character may begin on the inside, but inevitably shows up on the outside. Are you living your values? Keeping your word? Making decisions based on what you morally and ethically believe is right and wrong? Treating all people honorably? Are you internally aligned with who you claim to be? It’s important for you to know these things about yourself because others do. Your character screams loudly; it seeps from every pore of your body. And, it encourages or discourages others to trust you enough to want to follow you.
Do you possess the leadership edge? Remember, a leader is not to be confused with a boss. You may be the boss, but are you really a leader – do you really possess the leadership edge?
If you’d like to get a snapshot of the strength of your character, be your own best coach. Answer the following questions with complete honesty. Your answers will determine the level of your trustworthiness, the key component of the Leadership Edge.
- Do I have the courage of my convictions? When faced with fear, failure,
challenges, and obstacles, do I refuse to allow it to stop me? Or do I slink
- Do I speak the truth if I believe it needs to be said, even if others remain silent or if what I have to say is not popular?
- Do I do what I say I will do? Do I keep my commitments?
- Do I have the courage to remain steadfast in my values even when it’s
uncomfortable or when faced with potential negative consequences?
- Am I honest in my dealings even when it would be to my advantage not
- Do I practice what I preach – with everyone in every situation?
If you are not happy with your answers to the above questions, but feel called to lead, take the advice from Mary Ellen Rodgers, Deloitte LLP’s U.S. Managing Partner for Workplace Services, one of the top twelve women I interviewed for my book, The Unstoppables – How Twelve Women Leaders Reached the Top:
“Take time every year to sit down and ask yourself, ‘What have I learned? How am I better? What are the things that I still need to learn? How do I put myself in a position of not being stagnant, but truly growing in ways that are important to me and important to creating that leadership style that I aspire to?’”
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