Leaders Have Lost Their Way – Principles Are the Path Home
It is the quarterly orientation day, and the new employees are being showered with company knick-knacks, food, drink and professional handouts. The executive team piles into the large room with status, command and confidence. One by one, they present on their leadership journey, their leadership style, a description of company culture and how their department creates value for the company. The new employees find themselves inspired by the professionalism and well-articulated autobiographies, and I can see them thinking to themselves “I have finally found a great place to work.”
But talk is cheap. Over time, I tend to see less and less congruence between such presentations and actual behavior. In these types of professional presentations, I hear the executives describe the value and spirit of collaboration, but on the floor, I see conflict and selfserving strategies; in these types of presentations, I hear the importance of proactive and accountable action, but on the floor, I see reactive survival-type behaviors and conflict; in these types of presentations, I hear integrity and honesty, but on the floor, I see a lack of follow-through and dishonesty.
My validation for recognizing incongruent behavior comes directly from many of my respected colleagues, who have noticed a higher frequency of poor leadership behavior. In particular, I have been hearing the term “throwing under the bus” as a common descriptor for the growing failures in leadership.
What went wrong? How did we get to this place where we really can’t trust what our leaders tell us? In my opinion, we have moved away from basic human principles – the laws of human nature that keep us grounded and have stood the test of time. We have replaced principled thinking and behaving with the need for efficiency (short-term solutions) and relevance (significance and importance).
Principles, according to leadership author Stephen Covey (1989, 1991), are timeless laws with universal application; they are self-evident and serve as a foundation for values, thoughts, beliefs and behaviors. Principles are the guidelines for human conduct. Though every person may have a unique lens in how they see and interpret the world, principles are fundamental aspects of our consciousness, holding the truths that bond our species together. The proof that principles exist can be found in the outcomes; for example, when you are not accountable, are uncooperative or lack purpose, people lose trust in your character and prefer to avoid your presence. When you demonstrate accountability and cooperation and behave with purpose, people trust who you are and want to be in your presence as you collaboratively create synergistic solutions to our greatest challenges. I have yet to see a person live without principles and be at all effective in their work, their relationships and their well-being.
The following are what I consider to be primary principles and several short stories based on true events that I feel demonstrate the lost principles of our generation.
Connie’s team included five tenured employees and seven employees that had only been with the company for less than a year. The new employees were quite energetic, engaged and eager to provide value. The more tenured employees were less engaged and would often talk about “the way things used to be.” With such a diverse group, Connie knew she needed to implement team-building activities to bring them together.
Connie went on to build a three-month training program for her team, with the group meeting for
two hours per month, culminating in two days of off-site training. The training consisted of the team collaboratively developing a shared mission and vision statement. This allowed for everyone to provide input into defining who they were, what they did, how they did it and where they were going as a team. Not only did it help create purpose and direction but it allowed for everyone’s voice to be heard. Once the mission and vision statement was created for their work group, they worked as a team to identify their individual and team strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, ultimately resulting in a strategic goal bank. Based on the work group’s goal bank, individual team members created calendar-year SMART goals that incorporated their unique individual strengths.
Connie was demonstrating purpose for her team. The principle of purpose involves knowing who you are and, most importantly, where you are going; establishing a mission and vision; and generating meaning and encouragement. The result of Connie practicing purpose with her team brought them together with a shared identity and direction. Human beings need purpose to ground who they are while inspiring possibility.
The department lost their training manager but was set to hire seven new employees. The leaders weren’t overly concerned about onboarding and training the new employees. They were planning on hiring a training manager but not until after the new hires started. Sounds like a ridiculous story, but I must admit that these things really do happen. Amy, who was a tenured professional in the job, hated to see any employee struggle, especially new ones. Once she heard of the plan to hire employees even before the training manager, she set out to develop a training plan herself. She knew it wouldn’t be perfect, but she was going to do everything in her power to make the best of this situation.
Amy was demonstrating accountability by taking personal responsibility for the betterment of the organization. She was demonstrating tenacity and rising to the occasion in the midst of chaos. This principle is about recognizing the responsibility that comes with having free will; it includes being proactive and taking initiative for doing great work. The result of Amy’s accountability was found in the quality of service, confidence from her new team members and trust in her to be a responsible person for the betterment of the team and organization. Human beings need accountability in order to have ownership of their personal lives and be responsible free agents.
Sally was addicted to nicotine and smoked two packs of cigarettes a day. Working in a fast-paced finance company and facing several challenges in her personal world, she found that smoking was the one thing that could bring her peace in her chaos of a life. One day her 16-year-old daughter, Becka, told her that she would sometimes cry watching her mother temporarily remove herself from her family to smoke. She said, “I know you are stressed, and we have a lot going on, but I can’t bear to watch you smoke like that. You do so much for us, and I feel like you are not going to live long enough to watch us grow up.” This struck Sally, and right then and there she promised Becka that she would never smoke again.
Sally went to work the next day and struggled to manage her day without taking a smoking break. Watching others leave the building to take a smoke began to drive her insane. But every time she felt her flesh screaming for the nicotine, she remembered her promise to Becka. To this day, Sally has not had another cigarette.
Sally was demonstrating integrity by following through with what she promised her daughter and herself. Integrity is keeping your promises, being honest with yourself and expressing the grit and resilience that keeps us true to ourselves. The result of Sally’s integrity was seen in the relational growth between her and Becka and the trust derived from follow-through with what she held to be important. Human beings need integrity to prioritize their life purpose and demonstrate honesty in their actions.
Kent had been providing project work to a leadership team. The leadership team was never very clear in their expectations, so once Kent received feedback, he would rework the project and resubmit it with their recommendations and needs. (It is pretty common in project work that a team isn’t quite sure what they want until they see what they don’t want.) Though the process wasn’t frustrating, one individual leader in particular was beginning to get under Kent’s skin. In the feedback reports, there was often a condescending tone and personal insult, such as “Wrong again … that is just not how we do it around here … I wouldn’t have done
it that way.” To make sense of and keep this leader’s perspective, Kent would often check in with one of his colleagues to make sure he was being objective. Once he felt confident that the remarks were no longer business-related but instead personal, he scheduled a crucial conversation with the leader. In this situation, Kent scheduled a meeting with the one leader, pointed out his process and what his expectations were for the project and allowed the leader to comment so he could fully understand their perspective. Once this was complete, Kent read back the comments he found to be insulting and personally attacking. He spoke in an assertive tone that he expected to be treated with dignity and respect and if this couldn’t happen, they would need to all come together and re-evaluate his participation in the project.
Kent was demonstrating courage. The principle of courage involves knowing when to speak your voice with conviction, knowing what you stand for and where you draw the line and standing up for what is right. Courage is being brave in times of distress to stand up for what is right. The result of Kent practicing courage models to others that it is appropriate and necessary sometimes to stand up and use our voice when dignity and respect are not being honored. Human beings need courage to express their integrity.
The business section had implemented a new scheduling process that had Jake in a stir. He felt like the process took away his autonomy and didn’t make any logical business sense. Further, he was now required to fill out more paperwork to fulfill the new scheduling protocol. To better understand, he went to the section manager and asked to speak about the new protocol. But before he spoke, he sat patiently and asked why the new process existed and how it would create greater business value. He did not interrupt and allowed the manager to explain why the protocol was created. This required him to be cooperative as he sat with patience and mindfulness – behaviors of treating another person with dignity and respect. As a result of the conversation, he learned that the protocol had an important purpose and value to the rest of the business section, as it created greater clarity and communication with the other team members. Once Jake fully heard the purpose and looked within himself and recognized that the new protocol was serving the team, in this case, the team’s value from this decision was much greater than his personal needs.
Jake was demonstrating cooperativeness. The principle of cooperation involves listening; practicing patience; and, above all, serving one’s team and treating each person with total dignity and respect. Though the new protocol made his work a little more difficult, he realized the benefits to the team were greater. The result of Jake practicing cooperativeness modeled teamwork to accomplish important goals. It demonstrated listening to the needs of others and working collaboratively. Human beings need cooperativeness to appreciate diversity and become aware of humanity’s unique and subjective needs.
There are most definitely some amazing leaders in the workplace, and I have had the pleasure of working with some of the best. But unfortunately there are way too many leaders who are struggling; they have ignored human principles and instead chosen to focus on shortterm solutions and put effort into being significant and important. Too many leaders have lost their way, and principle-centered leadership is the path home.
Covey, S. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. New York: Fireside.
Covey, S. R. (1991). Principle Centered Leadership. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Covey, S. (2003). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Personal Workbook. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Owen, J. P. (2004). Cowboy Ethics: What Wall Street Can Learn from the Code of the West. Ketchum, ID: Stoecklein Publishing & Photography.
Dr. Chance Eaton has over a decade’s worth of experience working in the field of learning and organizational development. Due to his unique educational and work experiences in finance, psychology, leadership and management, education, noetic sciences and agriculture, Dr. Eaton provides his clients with relevant business solutions grounded in theory and research. To learn more about Dr. Eaton’s services, visit Hrsolutionsinternational.com.