People take their cues from leaders, whether those leaders are parents, teachers, coaches, bosses, or politicians. We mirror our leaders’ behaviors, their ways of talking, and even their ways of thinking sometimes. If you’re a parent, I’m sure you’ve seen this dynamic play out in your children many times over. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wondered where one of my kids picked up a saying or a mannerism only to later realize that they’re getting it from…me.
Typically, looking to our leaders for behavior to model is healthy. We learn valuable lessons from those who’ve blazed trails before us, and we pass those same lessons down to the next generation.
But what happens when our leaders become unmoored, with little discernible commitment to character or any principles other than profit or self-gratification? Well, look around. To say that there has been a vacuum of principled leadership in so many areas of our lives in recent years would be an understatement.
Even before the days of Enron and Bernie Madoff, there has been a dark, win-at-all-costs undercurrent in the business world. I think this can be directly attributed to a lack of principled leaders and a maniacal focus on shareholder-only capitalism. Long-term success that will sustain for generations requires loftier goals and higher ideals than short-term revenue or ill-gotten gains.
Look no further than Theranos and, most recently, Ozy Media to see that this win-at-all-costs ethos is still alive and well in some corners. Faking it ‘til you make it is all well and good when it’s tongue-in-cheek; when that approach becomes a company default and integrity takes a back seat, there are problems that can upend lives.
Looking at the political landscape, the situation feels much the same. Politics has turned into the theater of the absurd and the argumentative. From vaccine and masking mandates to immigration and social issues across the board, polarization feels like it’s at an all-time high. Nearly everyone in politics is more interested in protecting their job by vilifying the other side than they are in working together to make progress on substantive issues, of which there are many.
Principled Leadership – Why Does it Matter?
You don’t have to peel the onion back too many layers to see the corrosive effect this lack of leadership can have. A Pew Research Center study from last year found that 29% of Americans are high trusters, 32% are medium trusters, and 35% are low trusters.
In response to the question, “Would you say that most people try to help others or just look out for themselves?”, 57% of respondents said people just look out for themselves. 42% said people try to help others.
In a world that is increasingly interconnected and competitive, where more and more work requires the ability to understand and collaborate with others, this is an ominous statistic. Trust is one of the most basic building blocks of society. Without it, good luck filling potholes, much less adapting our workforce to compete in a global economy.
If this is where we are as a society, how do we keep ourselves from sliding further into the abyss? I believe we need leaders who are willing to put principles over profit. Leaders who are more interested in doing the right thing than doing the expedient thing. Leaders who are less concerned with personal glory or accolades than they are about lifting up their teams.
Only when we reach a critical mass of leaders who think and act this way will we begin to dig ourselves out of the rut we find ourselves in today. In an upcoming post, I’ll share a few practices I’ve put into place to ensure I’m not just leading with principle myself but ensuring the next generation of leaders at our company is doing the same.