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What is the Most Important Quality of a Leader?

There is an inspiring scene in the movie the Cinderella Man. James J. Braddock is a boxer during the depression. He and his family are in very tough times. They’re out of money. Out of food. He damaged his hand in a fight and was forced to search for work on the docks of New York.

He comes home after a long day to find his son in trouble. Knowing the family was out of food, his son stole a large sausage from the butcher earlier in the day.

James asks his son where he got the sausage. His son admits his act of theft. James walks him down the street to the butcher and tells him to give the sausage back, admit his mistake, and apologize. The act of committing to integrity even in the face of the most difficult of circumstances is the inspiration. This is one reason why integrity comes first in the list of leadership qualities. Integrity is the most important characteristic for a leader. It is the foundation of all the others.

The Essence of Success

Here is where leaders must start their growth. They must begin by committing to behaving with integrity. Otherwise, we attract failure and/or destruction. Integrity is the foundation for all leadership and success.

If you build a house, the foundation is the essence of longevity. Any weakness or lack of alignment will show up later with cracks, leaks, and/or even collapse. Building a solid foundation for leadership must begin with integrity. Ask yourself this question, “which comes first, integrity or emotional intelligence? Vision or integrity? Inspiration or integrity? Effective communication or integrity? Integrity or honesty?” I believe integrity drives all of these qualities.

“In looking for people to hire, look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy.
And, if they don’t have the first one, the other two will kill you.”
Warren Buffet, CEO Berkshire Hathaway

How to Begin

So how do we operationalize integrity so we can begin to build our leadership skills? We must start with observable behavior in order to know if we have the solid foundation. Start with the basics. Here are three statements describing behavior to get us started and keep us busy the rest of our lives.

Three simple statements which are not easy

The first statement is, “Make only agreements you intend to keep.” This means we must think about our commitments and promises to be sure we can keep them before we say “yes.” Otherwise, we must say “No!  I can’t do that.”

An agreement (or promise and/or commitment) is defined as a task which is specific, measurable and time sensitive, and where you believe you can deliver the desired result. For example, coming to work on-time is an agreement. If work starts at 8:30 AM, you need to arrive no later than 8:30 AM. You know how to get to work and you know when to leave the house and you know about (on average) how much time it will take. Therefore, you can make this agreement. But sometimes stuff happens, right? Yes, it does, which brings us to statement #2.

The second statement reinforces the first. It states, “Communicate immediately when you can’t keep your agreement to those who need to know.” If we can’t come to work on-time due to weather, traffic, or other unforeseen circumstance, we must let people know immediately. Communicating the result of a miscalculation, mistake, and/or inability to predict an unpredictable event protects us. It is a demonstration of integrity as long as it does not become a trend or a habit.

The third statement supports the first two and builds a process by which we can manage our integrity in any and all events which can impact our performance. “Admit when a mistake is made and take action to correct it and prevent it from occurring again.” If our choices show a pattern of broken agreements, we must stop and ask, “How can this be stopped?” Unless we are willing to break the pattern of dysfunction we convert from a leader into a victim of our circumstances. A victim is one who is injured and has little or no power for change. Committing to this last statement prevents us from falling victim. It lifts us up from injury to possibility.

These three statements begin to define integrity. Though simple to understand, they can be challenging to live. Making and keeping agreements is the minimum we can do to model leadership. It is the minimum we can do to live with integrity. It is a foundation to build from. Without these three statements, we have no foundation for integrity. And, without integrity, we have no leadership.

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