July 26, 2022
by Stephen T. Messenger
To be honest, I was a little intimidated this week when I described my Leadership Constitution to a brand-new team. A constitution is a set of rules that describe and guide how something functions. A Leadership Constitution is a leader’s promise on how they plan to lead and what values they live by.
As I stood there describing my Leadership Constitution, the intimidation came not because of the words I was saying, but from knowing the high standards that I was setting for myself. I was now publicly accountable to everyone in the room, and that was a good—and scary—thing; scary because I, like all of us, am a very fallible person.
James Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of The Leadership Challenge, conducted a survey repeated every year for the past three decades identifying the number one leadership attribute that others will follow. Year after year for over 30 years, one attribute stood at the top: credibility.
Followers long for a leader who will do what they say they will do.
Credibility is the foundation of leadership. Followers seek a leader who they trust. They want someone who is open, forthright, and transparent. People pine for someone who holds the highest standards, are not afraid to speak to them in public, and then lives those values.
Credibility revolves around honest behavior. It’s the simple things such as:
- Fulfilling commitments. If you say you’re going to do something today, complete it today
- Showing up on time. Begin and end every meeting on schedule—don’t waste their time.
- Thinking first, speaking second. Don’t say things just to please others. Take some time to think through your words.
- Keeping confidentiality. If you can’t say something, don’t. Instead of breaching trust or lying that you don’t know, just explain you’re not at liberty to say.
- Apologizing when wrong. We all make mistakes. Say sorry and move on.
People want to follow someone who is honest because the leader’s honesty is directly linked to the follower’s credibility. They want to work for someone with good morals, character, and principles—they then are perceived the same.
We then need a way to publicly explain our values. After trying this for the first time, I believe everyone should have a Leadership Constitution. Scott O’Neil, CEO of several professional sports teams and author of Be Where Your Feet Are defines a Leadership Constitution as a document that defines your values and how you will lead.
He then recommends publicly explaining your Leadership Constitution to your team. What this does is hold you accountable to the values and commitments you’re making. Others know what you stand for, and they can validate your credibility.
My Leadership Constitution is as follows:
What I’ve found that it’s not easy to publicly announce your value system to others, but its critical. Everyone places importance on different values, and it’s easy to judge what other’s think are important.
During this exercise, however, I’ve found that others appreciate knowing who they’re following. It’s like you’re making a contract with them.
And they desire someone who has extremely high value standards. Someone who, on first impression by sharing their Leadership Constitution, is honest, competent, inspiring, and forward looking—the top four leadership characteristics in the Kouzes and Posner survey.
Your people may not agree with everything in it, but they also don’t have to. I don’t drink, swear, nor gamble. Nothing wrong with any of those, but for example, I’ve personally found that alcohol tastes terrible and doesn’t help my body perform its best. There’s no judgement from me on others who drink; I just don’t do it.
The Leadership Constitution is a way to think about how you’re going to lead, communicate it to your teams, and live out your best self.
Your people are looking at you to be credible above all else and do what you say you will do. To demonstrate this, you should develop your value system, tell others about it, and live it out every day. This is challenging. We’re all humans and will fail often.
Luckily, no one is looking for the perfect leader. They’re looking for one who is honest, competent, inspiring, and forward-looking; and they’re looking for a credible leader who knows what they stand for.
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