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Leadership Thought #426 – What Are Your Principles?

March 4, 2013

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What are your principles?

All leaders should be able to answer this question easily and yet many struggle to address.  I have been in many organizations where if you asked the question, “What does this business stand for?” you would get blank stares.  Values are the building blocks of any organization.  Without a common set of beliefs and principles, a company is like a ship without a rudder, adrift in a sea of individual interpretation and situational experience.  A ship without a rudder will drift anywhere.

John Mellencamp has a great line in a song that goes, “You have to stand for something, or you will fall for anything.”  Business, like life in general, is full of temptation.  It’s easy to get off track and do what’s easy or convenient at the time, especially when you are facing tough competition or mounting financial pressures.  We have all heard the saying that “if you want to learn who someone truly is, then give them money and power.” If you don’t know what you stand for it is more difficult to make tough decisions.

A leader’s job is to first provide direction and foster an environment that leads to success.  You are constantly on stage and your people are watching your every move. They look to you to decipher what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior.  You need to instill and codify core beliefs and principles throughout the organization to ensure everyone is on the same page in terms of the boundaries within which they are expected to operate.  This includes who you promote, reward, and publicly acknowledge.  Every organization needs a moral compass if it wants to stay on the right path. There are no good moral shortcuts to success.

Sadly, many of us are disenchanted by the level of private and public leadership we see these days.  Machiavellian tactics are alive and well.  We are exposed to daily examples of individual leaders putting their own personal aggrandizement or wealth aspirations above the good of the company, stakeholders, country, and global community.  In this environment, it is easy to become cynical and tempted to succumb to similar behavior ourselves.  However, when you stand for something more important and live your life in accordance with these beliefs, it can bolster you against these unhealthy behaviors.

Your principles and values make up the core of who you are.  It is easy to lose sight of this fact and get tempted by opportunity.  There are certain things in life you can’t take back or make amends for once they have happened.  Regardless of the size of the company or the scale of the role, every leader gets to make choices daily that reflect their values and impact the lives of other people.

Leaders are especially defined by what they choose to say “no” to much more than what they say “yes” to.   If you get caught up in the “ends justifying the means” trap it will eventually come back to haunt you and there will be a reckoning for your past behavior.  Actions always have consequences.  Therefore, I often tell my clients that it is important to know two things: what guides you and what grounds you.  Without a solid foundation a leader like a building will crack under the weight of its own pressure.