Instilling a character-base leadership culture in organisations

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“Culture eats vision for lunch. Culture is more important than mission, vision, or strategy”. ~ John C. Maxwell

Behind every successful leader is a vibrant culture that engages and energises employees. In almost every case, that culture has been defined, shaped and personified by the leader according to a great author.

There’s a reason why an organisation’s leadership gets the blame when things go wrong. Leaders set an organisation’s culture, direction, and reputation. The example the leaders set can make the difference between “competitive” and “cutthroat.” In fact, studies have found that trust in the person leading an organisation is inextricably linked with trust in the organisation itself. That’s why leadership is such a pivotal role and responsibility. 

Let us consider the following:

Successful (and unsuccessful) leaders certainly have different perspectives and approaches. No two organisations are the same. Yet there is one leadership factor that remains the same across the board. The late General Norman Schwarzkopf put it best: “Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without the strategy.”

Character is a unique set of moral and ethical qualities that define what you believe in, what you stand for, and what you expect of yourself and others. It’s also integrity, values, and doing the right thing. This is equally true for individuals and organisations.

Character-based leadership creates the foundation for ethical organisations. An essential function of leadership is the demonstration and communication of character according to Dr J. Phillip Jack. An organisation’s leaders certainly set an example through their own behaviour. These leaders have positive attitudes, unquestionable integrity, and a commitment to the mission. 

However, the leadership team also has to make good character an organisational priority. Leaders must be very direct and clear about the company’s culture and its standards of performance. 

How is this done?

  1. The first step is establishing formal standards of ethics and codes of conduct.
  2. The next step is clearly communicating expectations and identifying behaviour that is acceptable and not acceptable.
  3. Provide training and indoctrination programs on organisational culture. And hold such programs with sufficient frequency to ensure a character-based culture is an organisation’s ever present modus operandi.
  4. Organisations also need a free and open system for adjudication of grievances or breaches of ethics and rules (“whistleblower” hotlines, etc.).
  5. Members of an organisation also need to rely on reasonable administration of problems and judicial procedures for correcting ethical failures. People can’t rally around what they don’t know and who they don’t trust. Dr  Jack concludes with the above points.

One of the many issues that plague organisations is that leadership doesn’t truly listen to their people. Other great authors state that companies are generally good at listening to customers, but when it comes to their own people on the front lines, the tendency is to become a little tone deaf and out of touch.

So how can leaders be better at truly listening to their teams? The answer lies in a most unusual place.

A true character base leadership culture possesses the following:

Understand your people know what they are talking about.  Leaders should never discount what their employees say as they are the closest to the customer.

Make yourself accessible. The best listeners are accessible listeners. Availing yourself to your people makes you more ready you listen to others.

Don’t discount an idea pitch that has been worked on. Always listen to the rationale and ask questions to clarify. Understand the other person’s perspective by asking the key questions from their perspective.

Don’t diminish an idea by being irritated. Always be gracious and open to any pitch given. Being truly professional allows people to feel comfortable asking and presenting you with ideas.

Don’t stroke your ego with a counter pitch. Great leaders won’t use their own pet project to squelch someone else’s suggestion. Truly listening means letting that person’s idea rise or fall on its own merits.

Know your limitations and your people’s strengths. Build on your forteevery day because that is what has brought you to this far, however, know that you don’t have it all that is why you hired other with other strength to cover up your limitations.

Understand you never know where the next big idea comes from. Leaders who truly listen will listen to wherever that next big thing is pitched from. Listening means to use your people as an extension of your vision and to do what is necessary. It also means giving away control over every decision and project to give your people credit for their innovation.

Truly great leaders are truly great listeners. Use these principles to make yourself a person people feel comfortable bringing ideas to.

The strength of any organisation is a direct result of the strength of its leaders. Weak leaders equal weak organisations. Strong leaders equal strong organisations. Everything rises and falls on leadership." ~ John C. Maxwell

Business schools spend a lot of time training students to become leaders, teaching skills and increasing knowledge aimed at turning smart, young people into effective leaders. Company training programs pick up where the schools leave off. Consider, for example, programs on workplace diversity, with their emphasis on communication and team building. A critical component of team building is culture, because if teams are to work effectively all employees must understand and embrace the culture of the particular group and business. There’s no doubt that today, a leader’s success depends on how he or she moulds and develops that culture.

Shaping a culture is a formidable task since many of the valuable qualities a leader might have are never taught in a classroom. They can be learned, but only from life experiences. Emotional maturity, authenticity, and a strong character are all essential if leadership in a culture-driven company is to be effective. So is an alignment among the leader’s passion, the company’s mission, and the corporate culture in which everything transpires. But these characteristics are developed through life experience.

Today, it’s possible to be in touch with anyone, anywhere, anytime. This development has had a profound impact on leadership. No one boss can be the central conduit for information about a particular company because employees across the world are talking to colleagues and customers all the time. No one boss has all the answers because the Internet has given us instant access to experts on any subject. The way we look at leaders has changed, and who we follow has become ever more situational. In fact, one of the reasons it seems so challenging to find successful political leaders today may be that the cultural dimensions of society have become too complex.

The great information highway has also brought us vivid images of every scandal and embarrassment that embroils our leaders in the political, corporate, and entertainment realms. The result is that society has become more cynical and much less tolerant and admiring of leaders. That’s not necessarily fair. Most leaders today genuinely try to get things done for good and even altruistic reasons. They are nonetheless often perceived as being driven by money, materialism, and self-interest. That perception is something leaders have to deal with, by redoubling their efforts to shake off the stigma of egocentric leadership and earn trust. No one is above it all. No leader can escape this reality.

To have an impact in this new environment, a leader must be closely aligned with the culture he or she hopes to lead. That culture might be particular to one corporation, or it could be much broader, reflecting the language and nationality, or ages and interests, of employees. The leader who parachutes in from the outside is a thing of the past. A leader whose own culture is inseparable from a company’s culture is likely to be much more effective.

One popular concept of the corporation paints it as a money-making machine. But when employers and employees alike see the company this way, no one is very happy or productive. When everyone is just putting in hours for a paycheck, one has to ultimately ask, “What is the point?” Who gets what share of the profit? A successful company must have a cause that is bigger and broader than the organisation itself. A successful leader must truly believe in a vision and a mission that can be combined to form a cause. He or she must be identified with the cause. “Walk the talk” is the most important criteria. The best leaders are those who derive their authority from having a genuine, inspiring sense of purpose.

An effective leader of a culture-driven organisation will be recognisable by several traits. When others try to describe him or her, they think of the vision first. The leader is thought of more as a person devoted to a cause than as a manager running a company. He or she articulates and spreads the values of the organisation in a way that is explicit rather than implicit, and his or her personal commitment to success is obvious and frequently verbalised. The culture-driven leader constantly demonstrates passion and energy for the work to be done and is not alone in doing so. In a culture-driven company, the style of leadership itself is emulated at all levels of the company.

The most important question to ask about corporate culture is whether workers think they’re in a job — or on a mission. A visionary leader is on a mission and inspires his or her employees to feel that way, too.How do you begin to define the cause? It’s a shame that the corporate mission statement went out of fashion, though it’s easy to see why it happened. Too many such statements failed at their task. An effective vision has to be one that shakes up the status quo and starts a revolution. No one will ever be inspired by a puddle of ambiguity. Too many corporate mission statements were diluted into dullness by consensus and multiple levels of approval, making them utterly ineffective for rallying the troops. A mission statement, though, is the best leadership tool you can ever invent. In grassroots, political organisations, the sense of being on a mission develops almost spontaneously, without central leadership, because enough people believe in the cause. A team with a purpose beats a team with a process any day.

According to Dr J. Phillip Jack London “Successful organisations – those that want to be successful for the long run – go one step further with character-driven leadership. How is this different from character-based leadership? Momentum. Leadership based on character institutionalises the expectation of and processes for ethical behaviour. Leadership driven by character sustains good organisational character by operationalizing and empowering ethical behaviour”.   

He also stated the following as some of the ways to make the difference happen:

 - Sustain an ethical workforce: Hire ethical candidates

 - Identify ethics standards and procedures:  Identify ethics resources

 - Reprimand wrongdoing: Reward right-doing