Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

December 4, 2013

How can stopping in the desert make you a more trusted leader?

Chris Hitch 

Special to Philanthropy Journal

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a six-part series exploring values-based leadership by Chris Hitch, director of the Gen. H. Hugh Shelton Leadership Center. 

Gen. Hugh Shelton defines a leader who leads with honesty as a person who is “always going to recognize the difference between right and wrong. You can count on that leader to make a decision based on doing what is right. Honesty and doing the right thing leads to trust in a leader.”

It also leads to trust from your manager or board that you will do what is right without having to check on you frequently. That concept of trust and honesty help increase action and focus on your stakeholders and mission, not whether others are doing the right or wrong thing.

Gen. Shelton gives an example about leading with honesty. He discusses that honesty crops up in many seemingly small decisions that you make on a daily basis. He talks about going through the Arizona desert and coming to a stop sign. Do you stop, even though you see that there is nobody coming from any of the other three directions? If you’re honest, you come to that full and complete stop, because it is the right thing to do. You don’t have to think about it; you just do it. Honesty and trust go hand in hand.  

Leading with honesty means doing the right thing all the time even when nobody is looking. I believe that these values, like honesty, are like a part of leadership “fitness.” Psychologists talk about muscle memory and how repeating the same action over and over in practice make it an unconscious positive act when the actual event takes place. I believe the same holds true with values-based leadership fitness. You make decisions (repetitions) in seeming small ways so that when a situation comes up, you automatically know what to do and simply do what you’ve practiced (ethical leadership muscle memory). As leaders, we are always being watched. You lead with honesty on a daily basis. Others pick up on what you do and how you act, and they begin to act toward you with increasing or decreasing trust, depending on your actions. 

Gen. Shelton also recognizes that, if you are an honest person, you also realize that honest people can make a mistake. He talks about underwriting mistakes. If you make a mistake for the right reason and it’s an honest mistake, you’re willing to underwrite or forgive that mistake. You underwrite it and move on. But if you don’t have a reputation for honesty, others look toward you with a much more skeptical eye. If others think that you make a decision for the wrong reason, they are unwilling to underwrite or forgive that person.

Where have you found leading with honesty in seemingly small situations translate to that same honest behavior in more significant decisions?

Chris Hitch, Ph.D., is director of the Gen. H. Hugh Shelton Leadership Center and program director of the Poole College of Management Executive Education at North Carolina State University.

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