From Our Early Files:
13 Oct 2013
“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”
― Helen Keller
As we continue our journey exploring servant leadership, the third point, the letter “R” stands for right things, the right way, for the right reasons; integrity and character are at the core of every great leader. This is arguably the most important leadership characteristic, because this one focuses on a leader’s character, which is core to their leadership style.
Integrity and character are the absolute cornerstones of effective leadership. You can’t pick up a book on leadership without character being mentioned as an attribute. Stories about “honest” Abraham Lincoln, or the legend of George Washington saying he couldn’t tell a lie regarding cutting down the cherry tree are tales we hear about from our youth. In his famous “I Have A Dream Speech,” Martin Luther King proclaimed “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Unlike some other characteristics, you can’t fake character; it is who you are at the core of your being.
What do you do when no one is looking? Why do you do what you do? What are your motivations to lead well? These are some reflective questions we must ask ourselves to understand what lies at the core of our being. So let’s break character down to the basics:
The Right Things
To begin, you must do the right things. As a leader, you must plan and execute your day with purpose, putting time into your priorities. However, you need to be prepared for the unexpected. Imagine running late for an important meeting and a co-worker comes in distraught and says they need to talk. What do you do? The real answer is: it depends. You need to have the moral compass to point you in the right direction so you are ready to handle these situations appropriately. For me personally, I would ask myself what’s most important right now. I generally focus on taking care of people around me and unless the meeting was vital, I would likely take the time to talk with my co-worker. I believe people are our most important resource and my moral compass tells me to be there for someone when they need you. But you will need to rely on your moral compass.
The Right Way
Next, you must do the right things the right way. Let’s face it; there is a right way and a wrong way to do most things. Growing up, my grandfather would always tell me to do things right the first time, because inevitably you would need to do it again and it would require more effort and take longer than if you just do it right the first time. My wife and I continue to discuss this lesson with our teenage daughter when it comes to cleaning her room!
The Right Reasons
Finally, you do what you do for the right reasons—this gets to the heart of what drives you as you go about your day. Are you interested in looking good for a boss in hopes of a promotion? Do you do nice things for people so they will like you? Or do you do what’s right, because it’s the right thing to do? Take time as a leader to reflect on what really motivates you to do what you do.
One day during group physical training (PT), I noticed as I was running around the track there was some trash on the ground. As the Installation Commander on the base, I made a mental note to go pick it up after PT was complete. Later, when I started to make my way to pick up the trash, I noticed another Airmen briskly walking toward the trash, so I paused. The wind began to blow stronger and the trash began to drift away, but the determined Airmen chased it down and properly disposed of it. Little did she know that her Wing Commander just saw her in action! I walked over to her, thanked her for taking the time to do the Right thing, the Right way for the Right reason, and presented a wing coin on the spot recognizing her effort. She could have walked past the trash, or given up the pursuit when it blew away. She had no idea someone was watching her. In a simple act, she displayed her true character.
Take A Look in the Mirror
When I share this leadership point about character, I often refer to the mirror in your bathroom. Each morning when you get ready to start a new day, you (hopefully) brush your teeth before leaving the house; it’s just good hygiene. Odds are, when you’re brushing your teeth you’re looking in a mirror. I challenge you to ask a simple, but tough question to yourself, “What kind of leader am I going to be today?” Use this opportunity to focus on the day ahead, and start off on the right vector by thinking about your character…it’s a daily challenge we all face as we go through life’s journey.
At the end of a busy day, before putting your head down on the pillow, chances are you will brush your teeth again. As you brush your teeth at night, ask yourself the tougher question, “What kind of leader was I today—did I do the right things, the right way, for the right reasons?” Sometimes the answer will be “no.” We are all human and last time I checked none of us are perfect. When you have one of those days, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, realize where you went wrong, and commit to doing better tomorrow. If you did have a great day, congratulations! Do it again tomorrow.
As a leader, you need to be true to yourself, you need to lead with integrity, strive to do the Right things, the Right way, for the Right reasons. One out of three is okay, two out of three is better, but getting all three in check is the winning combination. It won’t always be easy, but you will be glad you did!