by Stephen T. Messenger
March 9, 2021
Every afternoon, I leave work and am immediately faced with a dilemma. There’s usually no one around the empty parking lot, and by far the most expedient way out is through the way I came in—a short, eighty-foot access road to the main highway. The only problem is the signs, which clearly say that this is not the exit.
The official way out is by taking a right then a left, weaving through some barriers, and making an awkward left turn onto a busy intersection. It takes about ninety seconds longer, adds a traffic light, and, one could argue, is less safe. It is the legal way to exit. Or I could go the easier and, some might say, safer way (see how I can justify it?). Unfortunately, “Should I take the right action?” in this situation is a question many leaders ask of themselves; they shouldn’t have to.
Leaders cannot have a hint, a sniff, or a whiff of impropriety about them. This is the final leadership characteristic in the RALE+1 Leadership Philosophy. I started this narrative two months ago with a Starbucks case study about how the public percieved the coffee conglomerate as not environmentally conscious. Starbucks responded by updating their practices to remove any semblance of excessive waste or misuse. They understood that if the public thought they were acting improperly, improvement was needed. You’re the same. If your followers think you are lowering the standard on business or ethics practices, you instantly create a new and lower standard.
I talk about leadership a lot in my job using this RALE+1 Framework. A common question I’ve heard, but never been asked in these types of forums, is “What keeps you up at night?” Now, I’m not important enough to be asked what my sleep-preventing thoughts are—unlike our Nation’s important leaders—but I’ve thought about this question a lot.
After reflecting on my life—starting a leadership website, regularly speaking in front of groups about leadership, and being an example to my kids—I know exactly what would keep me up at night. I would be crushed if someone said this about me:
“You know, Steve talks a great game. He’s always saying things about being a better leader, but if you really watch him, you’ll see that his actions don’t match his words. He tells us to go and fulfill our maximum standard, but he doesn’t. He speaks about leading others but doesn’t try hard himself. And most of all, he talks about avoiding impropriety, but he’s cutting corners and doing some questionable stuff.”
Hearing that would kill me. Leaders cannot afford to have followers watching you do something inappropriate. And there are so many inappropriate things out there, for example, cheating on a travel voucher for a few extra bucks, manipulating data to make your organization sound better than it is, cheating on a test to get a few points higher, or going the wrong way down a one-way exit because it saves a mere ninety seconds.
None of these are going to make a big difference in the long run. But it’s not about money, recognition, scores, or time; it’s about credibility as a leader. As everyone watches what you do, they will emulate your example and follow your lead. When in charge, you set the pace: physically, mentally, psychologically, and ethically. It is your job to hold yourself and your team to the highest standard. I could rattle off hundreds of examples in the workplace and at home, but you know where you can improve. It’s there, somewhere in your gut. Take time to consider what area in your life needs a little improvement.
Now we all make mistakes. No one is perfect and we’re all going to have many future lapses in judgement. But by pausing when there is a questionable action, and determining whether you want your team emulating you, you can dramatically improve how others perceive you. You can’t be flawless, but you can be better.
Every day I drive the long way out of the parking lot. Occasionally I’ll see a car or two exit illegally and beat me out. I admittedly get frustrated that I’m doing the right thing while others are not. Then I wonder where else in their life they’re cutting corners and am glad I took the right path. Leaders do their best to avoid a hint, a sniff, or a whiff of impropriety. This is a high calling, not for the faint of heart, and one worth investing time in to improve.
RALE+1 Leadership Philosophy Introduction Article
Accept Responsibility (2 of 5)
Lead Boldly and Courageously (3 of 5)