What’s Your Leadership Compass?

I once asked a group of CEOs whether they (individually) had an explicit moral compass that enabled them to lead their organizations in a principled way. Every hand in the room was spontaneously raised. I then asked if anyone could articulate just one value for the sake of illustration. Not a single hand was lifted. I’ve done this repeatedly with many executive groups and witnessed the same non-response. The obvious conclusion is that, while most leaders genuinely believe they possess a compass that enables them to sort out tough challenges in uncertain times, rarely are they crystal clear on what constitutes those fundamental principles.

A leadership compass is not an ethereal concept. It’s the sum of the core values that define who you are as a leader when push comes to shove. It’s a critically important asset built on lessons learned and an invaluable reference point for navigating the consequential challenges that must be faced. Without firmly articulated principles that enable leaders to respond to their most vexatious issues and personal dilemmas, they have no rudder to stay the course in turbulent times.

Determining which non-negotiable rules we choose to live by is how we come to know ourselves as leaders. A compass enables us to self-audit and self-correct behaviours that undermine our purpose and the fate of the organizations we lead.

If you are equivocal in articulating your leadership ethics, they don’t belong on your compass. I’ve observed many struggle with the seemingly simple exercise of explicitly defining their core beliefs. Some espouse values that are biblical in nature, like the Golden Rule (doing unto others as you would want them to do unto you). When I ask whether this principle always governs their behaviour, invariably the answer is “Well, not always.”

Asterisks that say “read the fine print below” have no place on a leadership compass. Many things in life require spontaneity or “it depends” answers. But, when it comes to the imperatives of leadership, the principles that govern how you will lead and inspire others must be resolute and inviolate. Otherwise, they serve no purpose. Those who aren’t quite sure how to deal with perplexing circumstances, just dither, seek either solace or counsel from others and hope their choices will be the right ones. That is not my definition of leadership.

People are far more likely to follow those whose principles are consistent than those whose values are vague or susceptible to the whims of change. Great leaders are stubborn when it comes to their beliefs. It’s easy to be seduced by the power, perks and prestige of leading when your principles are negotiable – virtues become vices and overblown strengths turn into weaknesses. And that results in an exaggerated sense of self-importance.

Your leadership values must be uniquely your own; they cannot be borrowed. When you figure out these bedrock principles – what you will stand for and what you won’t – you will have defined your identity as a leader.

We aren’t saints; we’re human beings, full of flaws and failings. We struggle with obstacles and we frequently err. The antidote to this reality is called humility. With it, we are more capable of resolving life’s contradictions, confronting self-delusions, avoiding the treachery of hubris and leading others to accomplish great things. Without it, we close off feedback from others. And that prevents us from stepping back to address behaviours that run counter to our leadership objectives.

Leadership is less about personality and more about character. We can’t command the commitment of others; we can only encourage it. A strong inner compass does far more than guide our decisions: it gives us a sense of fulfillment, inspires the loyalty of others, reduces stresses and distractions, and fosters pride in our actions. Explicitly identify your principles and be true to them until they become your character and then dictate your behaviour.

Self-deception is common among the unsuccessful because it’s the avenue to doubt, self-recrimination and remorse. Leadership, on the other hand, requires fidelity to who we know we are.

It ain’t the roads we take; it’s what’s inside of us that makes us turn out the way we do.  – O. Henry