I often start discussions about sales leadership with the rule, “Lead with Integrity.” People sometimes ask me what that really means, so here’s a true story that illustrates exactly what that principle is and why implementing it is so important.
A senior executive I know noticed that there was limited parking space in the company headquarters garage. People were complaining about the shortage and putting up traffic cones to save choice spots. It wasn’t pretty. The ongoing arguments created stress first thing every morning – not just for the managing director but for the whole organization. One day the exec asked himself a question: Why not ride my bike to the office?
It made sense. He didn’t live that far from the building; biking was good exercise; he’d free up an additional spot for his employees; and he would avoid the stress of trying to find a parking spot. There was never any difficulty finding a place in the garage to put a bike.
So he started biking to work. People noticed. Then, the most amazing thing happened. Without him having said a word or issuing any kind of instructions or suggestions about how to get to work, people changed their behaviors. Within six months, the building’s garage was full of bicycles.
This example is worth studying closely, because it shines a spotlight on the power of personal leadership. Here’s the key takeaway: Whether they’re consciously aware of it or not, people model their behavior and their decision paths on those of their leaders. It is always the leaders who set the standard.
This simple, inescapable fact means that leaders carry a certain moral responsibility with every choice they make and every action they take. The big question is, are they setting the right example?
As leaders, we constantly need to ask ourselves:
“Would I want everyone on the team approaching their decisions in the way I am approaching my decisions?”
“Would I want everyone on the team taking this course of action, if they were faced with a situation similar to the one I am facing?”
“Do I want people to act the way I am acting right now?”
“Do I want people communicating the way I am communicating right now?”
At the end of the day, these questions point toward a single, vitally important word: integrity. Now, if you go to the dictionary, you’ll find that this word features two complementary, overlapping meanings. The first meaning of integrity is “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles.” The second meaning is “the state of being whole and undivided.” I mention this because both of those definitions are required to grasp what this first, and arguably most important, leadership rule is really all about.
The best leaders have strong moral principles that are not layered on or factored in as some kind of afterthought. Their principles are essential, non-negotiable elements of who they are as human beings. Are they perfect people? No. But they understand that if they deviate from what they know is right, that always leaves a gap, a deficit, a lack of wholeness—something that must be repaired.
Just as you can’t drive a car with one of the wheels missing, you won’t get very far as a leader without integrity. Sooner or later, a breakdown will occur because the rest of the team will be following your example – whether you mean for them to or not. Any lack of integrity on your part is going to echo and multiply.
If our aim is to build a team that delivers the kind of success that is both measurable and scalable, we will always need to start from a place of integrity. We will continually need to remind ourselves that people watch what we do, they see how we make decisions and interact with others, and then they adjust their behavior and their thinking to match with ours.
Specifically, people need to see us defending our own values, even when it would be easier not to. For instance, if we say we value respect and professionalism, but we keep someone on the team who consistently abuses those values because they are bringing in money, that’s a failure of leadership. Our people need to see us making the tough decisions that support our values. They need to know what to expect. They will respect us and work harder to support our vision when they see us making difficult decisions that are consistent with what we truly believe.
Commentary by David H. Mattson.
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