You don't have to be a CEO, CFO or any other type of alphabet soup kind
of leader to create a culture of character in your company. You can change
your department and create the kind of company you are proud to lead. You
can make a difference.
Not by rigidly following the rules or by handing down moral authority from
on high like your own home grown version of the ten commandants. Not by forcing
your values onto the people you lead. But by returning to the fundamentals
of leadership that we learned long ago from our parents, churches and schools.
Many business leaders lost their way in the blinding white hot economy of
the late 1990s. In those go-go times, it seemed like everyone was getting
rich and no one was getting hurt. Many of us were caught up in winning at
all costs, in a world of no absolute right or wrong, only increasingly sophisticated
shades of gray.
Today, we have paid a high price for the giddy excesses and irrational exuberance
of the late 1990s. Our unemployment is the highest in ten years, millions
of investors have been burned by a bitter bear market and businesses continue
to take up another notch in an already tightened budget belt. Now, somber
and sober, poorer and wiser, we have paused to re-examine our priorities.
How can we, ordinary business leaders, protect our companies, our careers
and our 401 (k)? The answer is to create a company culture where character
Creating a culture of character begins with a firm foundation. It continues
with becoming crystal clear on who you are and what you value. Where character-centered
leadership becomes so powerful is when you can incorporate your core values
into the organization's values.
- First, pause for a moment. Put this article aside and ask yourself, "What
is my foundation?" What is the first word that pops into your mind? For 99%
of people it is either their faith or their family. Invest the time and energy
needed to firm up your foundation. It is the core, the bedrock that everything
else builds upon.
- Next, become crystal clear on what you value. Write down your top ten
values. Choose from this partial list or add your own: accomplishment, achievement,
adventure, ambition, authority, career, challenge, competition, country,
discipline, duty, education, faith, family, freedom, good income, happiness,
honor, influence, intellect, integrity, joy, love, loyalty, military, morality,
patience, persistence, power, professionalism, religion, rewards, self-reliance,
success, tradition, truth, wisdom, well-being. Now, cross off two values,
leaving eight values. Cross off two more and then cross off two more until
you are left with your final four core values. If you take this exercise
seriously, you should feel uncomfortable each time you cross off a value,
as if you are giving up part of yourself. It is critical to become crystal
clear on your deepest held values.
- When you can integrate your personal and professional values, you can
live by those values in all parts of your life. As we become older and have
a greater sense of self, our values become seamless - they become integrated
into all that we do so that we can be the same person in all parts of our
life. Who you are, no matter where you are. As we reach midlife we catch
a glimpse of our own mortality. The people we grew up with and went to high
school with suddenly drop dead with heart attacks or lose their fight with
cancer. By the time we reach midlife, we no longer feel invulnerable. We
begin to ask the big question, "What am I doing that is important and lasting?"
The truth is that above the mundane daily details of getting the job done,
of meeting quarterly and annual performance goals, there is a larger issue
of leadership and character. How you live and lead at work and at home makes
- Communicate your values and the company's core values through stories
of leaders doing the right thing. In the mid 1990s companies invested significant
time and effort developing their company values. Today, many of these carefully
thought out value statements hang on the wall like a limp rag or gather dust
in a drawer. They have become mere rhetoric because they are not reflected
in the reality of everyday life at the office. Teach your people to speak
a common language driven by their values. Bernie Marcus, founder of The Home
Depot, would look squarely at the camera during an orientation video and
say, "We take care of our own." Home Depot modeled that value by taking care
of its employees through illness and personal challenges. Even if your values
statement was crafted by a gaggle of consultants, you can turn it into a
meaningful message by rewriting it in your own words and modeling it for
those you lead. Don't just mouth the words, live and breathe the values through
your daily leadership.
- Choose an accountability partner to encourage you through the setbacks
and to act as a reminder when you falter. We are all vulnerable to peer pressure
no matter if we are 14 or 44. If we rely on "how does this make me feel?"
or following laws or social norms we can drift far away from doing what is
right. Most business leaders are doing their best to live and lead by their
core values without any encouragement or reinforcement. Surround yourself
with people who share your commitment to character. If you can't find any,
start your own group.
- Find a company with core values that compliment what you already practice.
Life is too short and careers are too stressful to fight an uphill integrity
battle. Sam Starks gave up a corporate career that compromised his values.
Today he passes down leadership lessons as he teaches college students. He
says, "Working for someone without values will kill your spirit. It was a
difficult decision to leave, but I didn't like the company direction. I had
to quit to keep Sam being Sam."
- Practice character in the small moments and everyday decisions. Character-centered
leadership is more than good intentions. It takes practice and unsung successes.
It is composed of moments, of small steps towards a new life. Character comes
from doing the right thing and the next right thing and the next, until it
becomes a habit and a way of life as natural as breathing.
Understand that character-centered leadership is not easy. Growth can be
painful and uneven. You will make mistakes and fall short of your own high
expectations. Despite the best of intentions, you will backslide into bad
habits. Character-centered leadership is not a panacea for a trouble free
life. Living and leading with character requires the maturity to accept that
there will be temporary setbacks. Sometimes we have to operate within a system
that is unethical, unprofessional and unfair.
And if character sometimes comes with a cost, it must be its own reward;
at the end of the day, liking the person in the mirror, being able to sleep,
when you lay your head on your pillow at night. At the end of your career,
you can look back without fear that you let yourself down.
We can't all become charismatic leaders, the kind you would walk over hot
coals or chew off your right arm to follow. But we can all lead from our core
values. We can create a culture of character where our people can put their
values into practice. You can become the kind of leader that people will pattern
themselves after; the kind of leader they will still talk about 20 years from
now. And you can make a great difference.