Being raised by a West Point colonel father; there was no shortage of preaching about right and wrong. The rules (and resulting judgment) about stealing, lying and cheating were absolutes. But it was not until I attended West Point that the shades of grey relative to integrity were more highly defined.
West Point is famous for the strictness and the no-exceptions severity of its honor code. You are immediately dismissed if you are dishonest, or even deceitfully misleading. But, in addition, you are not allowed to tolerate others that violate the code. If you turn your head to others’ actions you also violate the honor code, even if you had no part in the deceit. To have 18- to 22-year-olds dismissed publicly by an honor code violation is traumatic and highly feared by all. It teaches you the different ‘shades of grey’ in interpreting integrity.
When I joined the business world, frankly, it was a struggle as I watched seniors interpret their individual honor code in what fell into the ‘shades of grey’ category. And as I rose to become a manager of others, I was consistently given problems that were too late to fix at that particular time, but I needed to make sure those same problems wouldn’t be repeated in the future. I found myself obsessing on if the problem represented incompetency and inexperience or was caused by malicious non-reporting at an earlier stage. Making mistakes is a part of the learning curve of a profession, but covering them up felt more like a character flaw that could likely reoccur.
I was always willing to invest in teaching subordinates who were honest and forthright, but lack of transparency and intentional deceit was not fixable in my mind.
The higher I climbed the corporate ladder, I found myself in conflict of being optimistic and inspiring, while remaining honest and transparent. What is deceitfully ‘spinning’ when you are the leader trying to make people feel that they work for a company with a great future? Bad quarterly data can always be spun as bad luck, one or two unfortunate jobs, or conditions outside of our control—no different than your worse competitors—but is that honest when you do it repeatedly over a long period of time? I did not think so. As a result, I disciplined myself to admit failure when it occurred and stop covering shortfalls of the organization. I stopped blaming bad luck or one-offs. I was always optimistic, but knew that getting better was the key to success. Without admitting shortfalls publicly, there could be no serious improvement.
Why don’t business leaders take more clues from watching the press conferences of the better college and professional football coaches after losing a game? They admit under-performance, hold themselves responsible and commit to improvement. Making other excuses might make the players feel better about their team or even their leader, but will such spin really improve the season ahead? The coach is paid to teach, strategize correctly, put the right subordinates in place and hold people accountable, including themselves.
In many ways, transparency and honest self-reflection, rather than spin, is the key indicator for integrity in business. At West Point they call it ‘picking the more difficult right, rather than the easier wrong.’ It can be inconvenient following that credo, but your conscience allows you to sleep and you will earn respect.
© 2016 Robert Uhler and THE UHLER GROUP. All rights reserved.