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As one who has studied leadership for a long time, I want you to know that I have worked very hard to accumulate a solid basis of theory for my writings. A great deal of my time has been devoted to reviewing the academic literature as it relates to the topic of leadership. I learned very quickly that there is a wealth of knowledge to be gained in this critical area of organizational development. For you see, without leaders, we are left without direction, guidance and motivation. Many of the people who write in academic journals go on for page after page, yet say nothing. That is a style I hope that I have avoided. However, they have placed an untold number of kernels of knowledge out there to pique the interest of the discerning reader.
I have specifically looked at some of the leading writers to see how they deliver their message, for I want to be sure that what I have to say is relevant to the early years of the 21st century. However, I do not want to lose contact with the precious elements that have formed the foundation for our organizations, and provided the cornerstone for the operational structures wherein we now work.
Warren Bennis has come to be one of my favorite researchers and writers. He has an excellent writing style, and always imparts decent knowledge. In a recent piece, he touched a responsive chord with me. In a discussion of leadership written for Executive Excellence, he makes a point upon which I would like to build this month’s column. He states, “The process of becoming a leader is the same as becoming an integrated human being. Character counts more than any other single quality. Character has to do with our mental/moral attitude when we feel most active and alive.” (Bennis, Executive Excellence, 1999.)
His thoughts are supported by the writings of Dr. William Cohen, a retired major general in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. In his book The New Art of Leadership, he covers important principles of leadership in combat scenarios, which he calls “the ‘worst-case’ condition of high risk.” (Cohen, Executive Excellence, 1999.) Cohen lists integrity as his first law of leadership and urges us to “maintain integrity by doing the right thing … (for) without basic trust between leaders and followers, the leader will be ineffective.” (Cohen, ibid.)
Each time I teach a leadership course, I begin with some version of the following: “Think of the best leader for whom you ever worked. What is it that made that person great to your way of thinking?” Without fail, some form of the word character comes into the discussion very early on. Other words that follow are:
It has been my experience that there is a critical element that lies at the heart of a good leader. It seems to be like a force that acts in an almost magnetic fashion to draw people towards them. They seem to have what I call a moral compass to guide them as they travel the dusty, bumpy road of leadership. Let me share a few thoughts on what I believe encompass the concept of this moral compass.
Over the course of my lifetime, I have encountered a number of leaders. Some were truly great, some were really, really bad. Occupying the middle ground were nice people who had a habit of doing the right thing at the right time. Cohen tells us that this attribute lies at the heart of being a good leader. He suggests that telling the truth is a great place to start, but goes on to say that “integrity is more than telling the truth – it means doing the right thing.”
Let me now extract a few key points from my lesson plan on finding your moral compass:
Integrity, trust and dependability all fall into the same basket. If leaders act in a manner that merits trust, the troops will respond and trust them. If they are consistent in their actions and support for their people, that trust will strengthen and grow. It is just that simple. This is the interaction that creates loyalty. People will demonstrate loyalty to those whose actions merit it.