Honest leadership inspires credibility

Look anywhere in the news - business, politics, sports - and there are stories about the lack of integrity in our day-to-day lives.

Look anywhere in the news - business, politics, sports - and there are stories about the lack of integrity in our day-to-day lives.

Eliot Spitzer has brought criminal charges against Theodore Sihpol III for helping a hedge fund place after-hours trades that Spitzer says were illegal.

Bernard Ebbers, CEO of WorldCom, was found guilty of fraud, and Kenneth Lay, chairman and CEO of Enron, claimed he was not guilty of misleading his shareholders.

The Bush administration is defending its use of VNRs, paid for by American taxpayers, to push its own political agenda.

In baseball, the home run records of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa are questioned because of their suspected use of anabolic steroids.

The integrity of our business and political leaders and sports heroes is at risk. The sixth annual Edelman Trust Barometer reported that "people's trust in long-established institutions and figures of authority has been significantly battered lately." It need not be. Leadership and integrity are not separable.

While Peter Drucker's definition of leadership doesn't exclude the lack of integrity in achieving a following, in today's corporate world, it is virtually impossible to lead without a high sense of integrity. While it can be argued that several of the world's greatest leaders have lacked integrity and have adopted values that would not be shared by many people today, they would not and could not do well in the business world.

Warren Buffett said, "If you lose money for the firm, I will be very understanding. If you lose reputation for the firm, I will be ruthless." He gets it. But that should come as no surprise, considering the well-deserved reputation of Berkshire Hathaway and Buffet personally.

The most important attribute anyone in business has is his or her integrity - integrity of spirit, integrity of thought, integrity of deed, integrity of ideas, and integrity of conviction. In the final analysis, effective, honest leadership absolutely enhances a company's credibility, which is par- amount. And an effective communications program delivers this message to employees, customers, and shareholders.

Integrity of spirit goes to the very heart of a leader's credibility. Employees, shareholders, and customers must believe in the credibility of the company and its management team. If you lose these constituents, it is hard to win them back, and your company loses its position in the marketplace.

Integrity of thought applies to the leader's vision and imagination. A leader has to have a clear vision about the future, commit to goals, and blaze a trail or run the risk of missing the future. But vision without creativity is hollow. He or she must convey this message through effective investor relations and PR programs to the myriad audiences interested in the company.

Integrity of deed focuses on the leader's actions. They must be above reproach. There is no margin for error. It is said that character is made by many acts, but a single one might lose it. Don't lose focus of that fact. Paul Steiger, managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, argues that ethical decision making is sometimes harder for institutions than for individuals, and that the "slippery slope" of corporate ethics scandals often starts with small mistakes that lead to bigger ones. The formidable leader will catch these small mistakes at the onset and, through his actions, will prevent them from mushrooming into serious issues.

Integrity of ideas is about the leader's ability to inspire. He has to inspire, via words and actions, all whose support is vital to the company's growth and future.

And integrity of conviction centers on the leader's ethics and the company's adherence to social responsibility. There is a heightened awareness of CSR today among journalists, as well as among institutional and individual investors. This is the company's moral compass. The role the company plays in its diverse communities - local, as well as global - is tantamount to success.

Speaking on a much broader subject, John Kennedy said, "Our problems are man-made, therefore, they may be solved by man. ... No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings." The same can be said of our corporate executives: No problem is beyond their means to solve. More important, it is within their means to avoid problems by adhering to a strict goal of elevated business ethics and personal integrity.

Finally, Warren Buffett said, "It's better to hang out with people better than you. Pick out associates whose behavior is better than yours, and you'll drift in that direction." Not bad advice for most corporate executives.

  • Michael Lissauer is SVP of Business Wire.

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