Becoming a Great Leader

The businessman with mask in office hypocrisy concept
The following is an account I share often.  I believe it is an illustration of a practice that any person can use to become a great leader.  Most people listen to it and then ignore it.
A friend wrote about his leadership experience in one of the most criticized federal bureaucracies, the Veteran’s Administration.  Everyone knows you cannot bring change in the Veteran’s Administration.  His claim of success would seem impossible.  The practice that brought the outcome is startling, simple, practical and scientifically sound.  I am going to recommend it to everyone I teach.  I suspect most will resist and a few will use it and flourish.
First consider the claim.  Over 25 years, his psychiatric service continually grew, reaching “tens of thousands who needed care.”  One reason is the organization was able to do something other rural services could not do: they continually attracted top talent.  His boss told my friend he had never seen anyone so lucky.
The service seemed to “draw” all kinds of other resources, including money.  Washington regularly increased the budget because his people did what they said they would do.  They were seen as giving Washington greater bang for the buck.
This claim of excellence, thriving, and growth in this particular federal bureaucracy is unconventional.  What is the practice he claims produced this success?
The answer is consistent with leadership research.  He forced himself to acquire moral power or idealized influence.  This was accomplished by a two-step process.
First, he worked hard to clarify his own beliefs about the moral foundations of leadership.
He then shared a written statement of his leadership ideals and invited his people to challenge his hypocrisy whenever he strayed.  This was a courageous act that signaled he really was a leader.  Most authority figures are not leaders.  They are more concerned with their ego than their morality.  To specify one’s deepest leadership beliefs and ask to be held accountable from the bottom-up is a brilliant and frightening act he suggested to all.
I too suggest this to all.  When I do, people tend to listen deeply and then most look away.  It is not something they want to do.  Recently a student wrote to me and shared the following.
I’m taking an online leadership course from my University of Michigan friend, Bob Quinn.  In a video, Bob told the story of a leader who shared his core beliefs with his work team.  The leader said, “Although I sometimes fail, I’m striving to live my deepest values.  I share these with you because I want you to hold me accountable.  If you notice me not living what I believe, would you please let me know so I can get better at becoming the person I really want to be?”
The message was followed by a list of aspirations and values.  It was vulnerable and authentic.  The message closed with this statement:
This morning I wrote down some of the things I value most and I thought I’d share them with you.  I’d invite you to be somewhat of an accountability partner for me and let me know if you notice I’m not living what I believe – so I can get better at becoming who I want to be.

  • What is the underlying principle that make this practice so powerful?
  • Why do people find this practice unappealing?
  • What would happen if every manager in an organization did this?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


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