Recently I participated in a survey last year about the future of leadership. There was only one question:
I thought hard about this and many things came to mind – integrity, perseverance, grit. Each time I started to answer, I had a sneaking suspicion I was on the wrong track. After many false starts, I deleted the survey from my inbox because it was too hard to pick just one leadership quality. But the question stayed with me. I have lots of opinions about what makes a great leader.
As a coach and HR/people operations professional, I needed an answer. I don’t meantheanswer; of course we can’t really distill great leadership into a single word or notion.Kouzes and Posnerhave been at it for decades and identified not one but five recommended leadership practices, following years of research and thousands of interviews.
It took me a while to realize that what I believe is at leadership’s core is authenticity. It is geography, industry, and situation agnostic. A leaders’ willingness and ability to stick to his or her core values directly affects how they respond in difficult situations, during uncertain times, and when stakes are high.
Consider some of the toughest situations we face at work – when relationships, jobs, and companies are at stake. We can find ourselves choosing between being genuine and being liked, accepted, respected, rewarded…you name it. Some conflict is to be expected in any organization. People will disagree with one another. Not everyone can get along all the time, and false harmony is a sure path to failure. The need for authenticity transcends all of that.
When it comes to respect, ethics, and integrity, you need to know where to draw the line. Here are some signs you’re staying true to yourself. It’s all too easy to let things go, not speak up in the face of bad behavior, and to lack the courage needed in workplace cultures that tolerate disrespect.
If your choices about whether and how to show up keep you up at night, it’s a sign that you’re grappling with the hard questions many people choose to ignore. As a leader, you’re a role model for your team and employees, as well as family and friends. Here’s what it looks like when you embody this important leadership quality:
There are companies where people are told to focus on increasing their visibility and internal brand. Success means spending more time building relationships than achieving results. Relationships are important, and we all need to keep our stakeholders happy. But the talented people I know want to minimize politics and bureaucracy in favor of doing work that’s changing the world. Politics are an unfortunate reality in most companies. But when politics take priority and diminish time spent delivering results, that’s a real problem. When visibility and personality contests get in the way of work, you’ll know it’s time to move on.
It can be difficult to maintain self-respect in organizations where blame, yelling, and finger pointing are the norm. It’s unpleasant to be on the receiving end of this behavior, and worse still to watch it happening to others. Healthy conflict is fine, but it should not include shaming and personal attacks. I once watched a group of executives in a meeting who were being so demeaning to a colleague, yelling, finger pointing and banging on the table, that I called a time-out and invited him to leave the room the room. When my daughter heard me tell this story over dinner, she suggested those leaders go back to preschool and start over.
If you knew you could just leave tomorrow, conflicts at work wouldn’t be so draining. Most of us don’t have that luxury because we need a paycheck and benefits, we have stocks vesting, etc. We need to be thoughtful about when and how we pick our battles. Your manager or colleagues may find a “fierce conversation” offensive, even if you’re being constructive with your feedback. Some people simply don’t want to be accountable for their own bad behavior. If a raise, promotion, or your job are at risk, it can be necessary to keep your head down for a while. Still, working in a place where you can’t be your authentic self will take a toll. Start creating your exit strategy now so you’re ready when you need it.
Has your culture turned toxic? Do politics and conflict result in lost productivity? Our mission is helping companies create healthy, inclusive cultures. Learn firstname.lastname@example.org .