Leadership – Natural, Weak and Strong Leaders of Integrity

Julian Martin Clarke (2016)

New leaders and managers can arrive at a new employer with a great advantage, particularly when they don’t know the specific industry or sector, as they can challenge preconceptions and status quos by asking many questions, especially why, why, why?

Isn’t it extraordinary then that so many employers search for people with experience in their same industry rather than looking for the brightest people with the best fit for the culture of their organisation? The way they do things.

Yet the one factor which may in due course transpire to make the most significant contribution to their organisation may be missing from the CV and only become apparent at interview: Enthusiasm… For meeting people, getting to know them, what makes them tick, and learning about their new organisation and role and suggesting different and maybe better ways to do things. Because they are coming from the outside they have the advantage of seeing things differently than those who have been insiders for some time.

Yet when the natural leaders challenge the long established status quos, as they will, they do so in a non-challenging manner. Because they appreciate that people are slow to respond to new ideas and change, which needs to be handled tactfully, carefully and step by step, notably respecting those who will take a while to appreciate the benefits of a fresh approach.

So natural leaders ask questions and intimate things in such a manner that the insiders become the people suggesting the changes which the former outsider believes most appropriate.

Natural leaders know that people buy-in and best respond to changes when they are included in the process rather than excluded and especially when they feel (or are made to feel) the ideas to do things better are their own.

Natural leaders know that people can’t be told to do something differently, dictated to nor spoken down to in a disrespectful manner. They know that people respond best to being included, respected, valued and appreciated.

Above all natural leaders know that people are creatures of habit so if changes are to become other than superficial and temporary, with people giving lip-service to the new order but actually continuing to do things in the manner to which they had become accustomed, that changes cannot be demanded of people.

Changes will only become genuine improvements when people want to do things better. A cycle of everyone feeling sufficiently involved to be constantly seeking to do things better only happens when people in all areas and at all levels are actually inspired to change.

Natural leaders know that while some people will prefer to keep doing things the way they have always done, that the people who will be most satisfied with such a scenario will be their more adventurous competitors. They know that people will switch to their competitors when it is they who offer genuinely better service, as will often or perhaps inevitably happen when it is their leaders who prioritise transforming “the way we do things” and this differs substantially from “the way we always have done things”.

Weak leaders

Weak leaders rarely challenge the status quo or ask “can we be doing better?” They believe in “not rocking the boat”. What does this achieve?

Weak leaders permit obstacles to progress and fresh thinking to be built into the system rather than being eradicated. What does this achieve?

Weak leaders only pursue doing the popular thing in lieu of the right thing.

Weak leaders accept a culture which can promote the compliant rather than those with vision and courage, while rewarding the non-performers by accepting their mediocrity.

Weak leaders can accept the best performers being vilified for wanting to “go the extra mile” because this shows up the inadequacy of those who don’t.

Weak leaders permit non-routine customer requests being met by routine responses such as “not my job”.

Weak leaders permit a “can’t do” response to not only customers but also requests from colleagues for co- operation.

Weak leaders can be aloof and unapproachable. A manager should never have to say “my door is always open” as it should always be. Staff should always feel welcome to approach someone much more senior.

Managers should want and be inspired to pass on suggestions from their staff to the leaders even if they personally disagree, giving credit where due to those who show sufficient interest to want to make improvements.

Weak leaders can permit so many levels to exist in their organisation that progress is slow, as only people at a certain level are permitted to perform specific tasks. Does this achieve anything constructive?

Weak leaders can permit many levels to exist in their organisation that decision making is slow as no-one will accept the responsibility for the outcome if unfavourable.

Weak leaders permit “it isn’t in the budget” to be an excuse so something interesting or innovative cannot be tried.

The key measure for some weak leaders is numbers employed not numbers of satisfied customers. Ultimately the suspicion is that organisations led by such people may be primarily run for the benefit of the employees not customers.

Weak leaders perpetuate a system which allows those who opt out of the workplace or contributing to society to be incentivised for doing so. They delusionally describe this as “full employment”.

Weak leaders perpetuate a system which allows those who cheat to be permitted to cheat without repercussions.

Weak leaders cover up rather than own up when something goes wrong. “This shall never get out” becomes their mantra.

Weak leaders who do little to change “the way we have always done things” contribute to their people ultimately producing nearer their worst than their best. When people working for such weak leaders are denied the opportunity to achieve, they are more inspired to leave or “fall asleep” than put their heart and soul into their jobs.

Strong leaders

In start contrast, organisations led by strong leaders promote the best and deal with the worst. Inspiring them to do better or preferring they work elsewhere.

Strong leaders value variety and flexibility which they ensure are widely practiced and remain ambitions not obstacles.

Strong leaders ensure many people can perform many functions because multi-skilling and wanting to do and learn more is an integral part of the dynamic culture they create.

Strong leaders do not limit the functions people can perform, rather they broaden them and give them more responsibility.

Strong leaders inspire people to achieve and produce their best. For strong leaders there is no such thing as setting too good an example and being told to slow down.

Strong leaders inspire people to advance and give them the opportunity to achieve.
Strong leaders welcome people at all levels challenging them politely how they could be doing things better.

Strong leaders are approachable and seek better ways of doing things. They welcome ideas and do not refuse them as being untried or too risky.

Strong leaders do not react to every problem which arises by wanting to take on more people, rather see how people less busy elsewhere throughout the entire organisation can contribute.

Strong leaders do not create rules based on work practice prohibitions. “Can’t do” is not in their vocabulary. Rather they inculcate a “let’s see what we can do” response to unusual or non-routine customer and co- worker requests.

Strong leaders create a genuine incentive to save and not waste money – and their people manage the finances like it were their own. They ensure spending budgets are justified each year, not just “last year’s plus”. For them “it’s not in the budget” doesn’t mean something worthwhile but previously unpredicted can’t be considered. Plans and priorities are always capable of adaptation. They recognise that flexibility is a critical managerial strength.

Strong leaders ensure key measures of “numbers of people” refer to satisfied customers not employee numbers. They are rated on performance and even stakeholder satisfaction levels, not numbers employed.

Strong leaders when facing financial crisis prefer salary cuts to job cuts. They recognise that firing many people may satisfy the stock markets but not their families. They take the biggest pay cuts themselves to lead by example. They are wise enough to appreciate that a few years of lower salaries may help their organisation survive the crisis, yet have an appreciative and experienced workforce should better times transpire.

Strong leaders ensure barriers to progress are demolished not created and that “level” describes the playing field – not a key barrier to progress. They inspire people’s creativity not prohibit them from performing to their best.

At the end of the day because the organisation is primarily run for the benefit of the end-consumers, those it is tasked with serving, their employees look forward to coming in to work because they know they are valued and appreciated and get a great kick out of co-operating and “superseding the customer’s expectations”.

In many organisations progressive, flexible and adaptable practices such as this sample are commonplace. The shame is that those who haven’t had the opportunity to work in such environments don’t or can’t appreciate what they may be missing out on. Being inspired to produce their best on an almost daily basis gives people a “lift” which makes their lives and those they share their lives with better.

Strong leaders appreciate that “comfort zones” such as “the way we have always done things” ultimately do not lead to as “comfortable” a work life as some may expect when people are restless and can’t wait to get home in the evening.

While weak leaders tolerate mediocrity and fail to inspire brilliance, confident leaders employ and promote people more likely to shake the place up and challenge the status quo, not because they will toe the party line and not rock the boat.

Strong leaders enter meetings with ideas and plans, yet also do so with a sufficiently “open mind”. They seek open and honest discussion, dissent and alternatives and recognise this is why they have teams. They consider the options including plans being changed or improved by their colleague’s observations, ideas and suggestions.

“Getting their own way” is of secondary importance to “doing the best thing”. They dislike seeing their organisation standing still and prefer to see it and its people progressing, so they listen, learn and lead.

Crossing the line

What is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour?

Who decides or should decide where the lines between right and wrong, fairness and cheating, respect and disrespect, honour and dishonour should be drawn?

Strong leaders own up and don’t cover-up. They accept responsibility for mistakes and persuade others to do the same, ensuring they and those they lead live and learn from such experiences. They set an example by not denying the undeniable because they know few are actually fooled by doing so.

Strong leaders appreciate that disrespect and defending the indefensible damages trust and reputation, likened by Socrates to a fire – easier to keep lit but far harder to relight when allowed to go out.

Strong leaders know that showing respect attracts respect, including when they do not try to “pull wool over the eyes” of others and instead tactfully tell things as they really are.

Strong leaders know respect comes from being open, honest and transparent and disrespect starts “when first we practice to deceive”.

Strong leaders have a strong sense of what is right and wrong and what is in the best interests of their organisation in both the short and long-term. They inculcate these standards throughout their organisation.

Strong leaders know when to accept the necessity for short-term pain if it may contribute to longer term gain.

Strong leaders also know when to avoid short-term gain if it may risk longer term pain, especially to reputation.

Strong leaders know that those who believe in “winning at all costs” and choose to cross the lines of what many might judge to be acceptable behaviour risk the loss of respect and trust, personal and collective, perhaps even bringing their organisation and its sector into disrepute.

Strong leaders know that some people see these situations as grey areas. Indeed a dilemma has been well described as a “situation seemingly beyond satisfactory resolution”, sometimes a choice between a number of rights or a number of wrongs. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

But strong leaders also know that many decisions are not dilemmas. They are actually black and white, a choice between right and wrong. They are only grey areas to those more used to taking risky and dodgy decisions.

Indeed “grey or gray areas” can be simplified and resolved by stepping back and considering a few maxims or rules of thumb. Indeed paraphrasing a few well known mantras from other areas of life could prove to be beneficial in finding a “satisfactory resolution”

Oscar Wilde said “I can resist everything except temptation” but what advice can be offered to those who may be tempted to cross the line of acceptable behaviour?

Blanchard & Peale wrote that“there is no right way to do a wrong thing”. If everyone involved were to remember this before they took a hasty decision, not only is their conscience likely to be clearer but also their reputation remain intact.

This phrase of a mere ten words has guided many organisations I have had the pleasure of working with. It’s simplicity belies its difficulty to practice “when push comes to shove”. Yet experience would suggest that people primarily considering such an apparently simple mantra while deliberating may prevent them taking ill-considered actions which cross a line which may transpire to result in more harm than good.

Especially if they are subsequently “found out”.

Few suspect when they engage in dubious or wrong actions that this will ever “get out” as it often does.

Perhaps they would be better first assuming that it will “get out” before they act.

If they were to consider the “newspaper test” and ask themselves whether they would like their covert actions

to be overtly reported on the front pages of a newspaper or website, would they still take the same decision?

How people choose to communicate can very much set the tone for how they are perceived, preferably openly, fairly and respectfully.

Of course it is better to avoid problems arising by choosing to “do the right thing especially when no-one is looking”. Nevertheless in dealing with issues crisis communication experts would suggest a mantra of “owning up rather than covering up”, recognising that a quick apology can diffuse a situation and prevent it from escalating.

Allied to this a policy of “not justifying the unjustifiable or denying the undeniable” may enhance respect and prevent any situation growing into a crisis.

Similarly a policy of “public praise and private criticism” allows issues to be resolved “in-house” and enhances trust and loyalty.

Of course being polite and using the “six magic words” – please, thank you, well done and sorry” – sets the right tone and invites others to do the same.

Showing an interest in others means they will be more likely to reciprocate with you. But who are the “others”? How far should the net be cast? Where does this responsibility end?

There is an expression that “business ethics begins where the law ends” suggesting that what is legal is only the starting point in evaluating what is right rather than the sole determinant. The same applies across society. Those who have to resort to stating “we did not break any rules” are often the most culpable and (should) know they could have done better if their behaviour were to be judged as having been of the highest integrity.

“Would you do business with someone you don’t trust?” could easily be amended to“would you choose to elect or promote someone you don’t trust?”

Yet like in business, the likely impact on that critical quality we call trust appears to often not to be at the forefront of the minds of the decision-makers when they choose to try and seek an unfair advantage.

It is in situations such as these when real leadership is most required, in all areas of society.

A mantra of “speak of others as you would like them to speak about you” is likely to enhance rather than damage mutual respect.

Oscar Wilde may have said “to lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose both looks like carelessness”. Those who make a genuine one-off mistake perhaps deserve a second chance and should be dealt with differently than those who fail to earn from their experiences or deliberately engage in wrongdoing.

With so many people seeking to find trouble whether it exists or not, having “peacemaking” as a policy may deny the more sensationalist people and media the oxygen they need to cause trouble. “Turning the other cheek” to provocation turns the tables on the troublemakers.

Treating everyone the same no matter who they may be is a great way of making friends and not losing any. Treating everyone as being important prevents the embarrassment when someone previously ignored or disrespected actually does transpires to be important.

A person of integrity – a whole person – behaves in the same manner in all areas of their life, treating everyone well both at home and at work. This may be all the more important when “work” involves being in the public eye.

Martin Luther King could have been referring to the key role which “public” people play in society and the “big picture” choices they face when he said that:

“Everyone must decide whether they will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.”

Maybe people do not sufficiently state how they dislike the dark side of mind games and cheating which some believe is necessary, even if it may transpire to have conferred little real advantage, but instead resulted in neutrals hoping the lights go out on those who prefer darkness to light.

No-one makes a decision expecting it to backfire, yet some engage in practices which can only be counter- productive, if only their ego permitted them to see this. Winning at all costs may transpire to be far more costly than they anticipated. Surely no-one would take a decision which would result in more people wanting them to lose or fail?

One fire that needs to be lit is that in the hearts of our youth.

It is not just the reputation of those in the public eye which can have a huge influence on our youth which is at stake, it is also the reputation of public service in general which potentially plays such a positive and all the more necessary role in society.

Our children are very influenced by what they see in the media. They notice the “givers” more interested in everyone else than themselves and the “takers” more interested in themselves than others. They notice the people who are very fair and decent and normal, as well as those who cheat and are rude, ignorant and arrogant.

They notice that some prioritise positivity over negativity and that optimists make opportunities of their difficulties while pessimists make difficulties of their opportunities.

A mantra of “Keep Smiling No Matter What” or KSNMW is a great policy which helps maintain positivity in any adversity.

Who do we as parents want to see our children most guided by? The modest and calm or proud and petulant? Those who praise or criticise? Those who encourage or discourage? Those who include or exclude? Those who empower or intimidate? Those who prioritise the interests of others or insist on getting their own way? The kind or manipulative? The open and honest or deceitful and divisive? The peacemakers or troublemakers? The team-players or self-centred? The role models or the cheats?

People in the public arena have a huge and onerous responsibility to be true role models, an aspiration many manage to rise to, often admirably.

Yet this does not deter some from “crossing the line” and “pushing the envelope”. Although such people often achieve little for doing so, do they deserve our respect when they do win “at all costs”?

Do they consider what the real cost may actually be? When leaders choose to “do the wrong thing” do they ever consider the impact on trust, reputation and hope?

The long term impact of their behaviour may well be that more and more hope they don’t succeed or win!

Surely a role of those involved in public life is to attract more support rather than divert it to their opponents?

Children are very influenced by society’s leaders as well as their sporting heroes, musicians and actors. They need to be set an example by everyone involved that no parent could be disappointed with should their children decide to do the same themselves.

An integer is a whole number. The “WHOLENESS” associated with the notion of “INTEGRITY” is displayed by people doing the right thing in all not just some areas of their lives, visibly practicing what they preach, owning up not covering up and ensuring their words and actions live up to their values.

People expect high standards of those in leadership positions. They expect society’s leaders to practice what they preach and display their integrity by “doing the right thing even when no-one is looking”.

Astute, strong and courageous leaders know that DOING THE WRONG THING WHEN EVERYONE IS LOOKING could never be described as leadership let alone leadership with integrity.