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Leaders don't always manage to do the right thing, but they constantly strive to access the wellspring of integrity within them
Each year, scores of books are published on the subject of leadership. They're written by academic giants like Noel Tichy and Warren Bennis, great CEOs such as A.G. Lafley, and by sports legends like Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski. I wrote a bestseller called The 100 Mile Walk...A Father and Son on a Quest to Find the Essence of Leadership. Those of us who aspire to be better can learn something from any of these books. But there's one thing that's so simple it's often overlooked in even the best leadership tomes.
Sander A. Flaum
The one defining characteristic I've seen in all great leaders is that they strive to do the right thing. For instance, Sir Harry Evans, editor-at-large of The Week, and his wife Tina Brown, former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, persuaded the owners of the RMS Queen Mary 2 to host a benefit for the American Institute of Stuttering. Some famous stutterers were invited, including Jack Welch of GE, John Stossel of 20/20, singer Carly Simon, and Kenyon Martin of the Denver Nuggets. For months, Evans and Brown worked tirelessly to make certain the event was a success. Together they raised $1 million for the study and treatment of stuttering.
As time marches on, chances to do the right thing come and go. We cross paths with people who are down and out; we see strangers who need directions; we encounter family, friends, and employees seeking our help. Leaders come across these moments as often as everyone else; it's what they make of these quotidian opportunities that shapes leadership.
For illustration, compare two recent instances of philanthropy. In July, The New York Times reported that the late hotel heiress Leona Helmsley not only left millions more to her dog than to her grandchildren, she also left the bulk of her fortune—estimated at $5 billion to $8 billion—to dog care. Such an arrangement doesn't fit the definition of "Leaders do the right thing." Money can be used to do great things (see above). But merely giving money is not a hallmark of greatness. Allowing a vast estate to "go to the dogs" (literally) is not especially admirable.
On the other hand, Bill Gates, once the world's richest man, has given more than half of his net worth to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is working to wipe out polio, HIV, and other devastating illnesses around the globe. (By the way, that's $29 billion given, and still counting.) Investor Warren Buffett followed suit, donating $37 billion to the Gates Foundation—the single largest charitable donation in history.
"Mr. Gates said it was Mr. Buffett's support for philanthropy which had persuaded him to set up the foundation in the first place," reported the BBC. Not only did these two men—two of the richest in the world—inspire each other to the greatest levels of personal benevolence ever seen, they also have an ongoing interest in how the Foundation's work will be carried forward.
My mom was a wonderful mentor and role model for me. She taught me a lot about doing the right thing; there are ways that each of us can tap the fount of integrity within us, and channel it toward others with far-reaching results. The lessons I learned from Rose Flaum were many, but the one that seems to stick in my mind throughout the years is "try and do something good every day."
I also learned something about doing the right thing from Bill Steere, former CEO of Pfizer. He often spoke about the "Performance Review." Most managers typically spend one minute or so telling a subordinate about the good things they've done, and the next 30 on what they need to improve. Steere, however, focuses on building up the positive attributes of his people, which is a lot more motivating than focusing on the weaknesses.
Extend this philosophy to the "real world," and watch what happens—not just around you, but to you. The next time someone on the street asks for help, choose to see the potential for good and do the right thing, not the so-called correct thing or the easiest thing.
As far as leadership is concerned, there is only the doing from moment to moment, for leadership is about action, not words. Do the right thing; it will make you a better person, and certainly a better leader.
Sander A. Flaum is managing partner of Flaum Partners and chairman, Fordham Graduate School of Business, Leadership Forum. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org