The Most Important Trait Of A Good Leader

Throughout my careers as an officer in the U. S. Army, CEO of The Procter & Gamble Company, and Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs; I learned that the most important trait of a leader is their character.

Honesty Is Incredibly Important

As a young Second Lieutenant, Airborne, Ranger, Infantry Officer leading First Platoon, Charlie Company, 1st of the 504th Airborne Infantry of the 82nd Airborne Division I faced a dilemma early-on in my leadership.  My Platoon Sergeant, a Veteran of Vietnam, lied to me; and I had to figure out how to deal with it.  Our platoon was volunteered to do an experimental parachute jump, testing a new reserve parachute. I had not yet been Jumpmaster qualified, so my Platoon Sergeant took the role of Jumpmaster, meaning he helped the paratroopers jump out of the door.  He supposedly then jumped last.

When I got to the ground I heard whispers among my soldiers, and I myself wondered where the Platoon Sergeant was.  He showed up late to the rally point.  We wondered if he had jumped or landed with the aircraft.  I later confronted him in private, and he told me that he jumped.  We discovered in reviewing records of the jump, the experimental jump was recorded, that he didn’t jump.  I had to make the tough decision to relieve him of his position.  If he would lie about an experimental parachute jump, what would happen in combat?

The West Point Honor Code is not to lie, cheat, or steal or tolerate those who do.  The purpose is clear.  When soldiers’ lives are in danger, leaders need to have impeccable integrity—tell the truth—and be part of a community where integrity is essential and expected.  I found this value at The Procter & Gamble Company as well.  One of P&G’s values is Integrity.  Another is Trust.  These are related.  Integrity breeds trust. P&G is famous for the one-page memo.  Even the most important and most costly ideas are distilled to a one-page memo—one page which succinctly  states the idea and the reasons why it is right to do.  I remember when my first idea and memo was accepted by my boss.  I worked weeks on perfecting it.  Yet, when I reviewed it with my boss, he abbreviated the conversation by saying that he trusted me and didn’t need to review all of the data and analysis I had developed to back up my claims. Integrity created trust, and trust helped the company operate more efficiently and effectively.

Have Ambition For The Organization…Instead Of For Yourself

But character is more than simply being truthful.  It is about putting the needs of the organization above oneself.  Jim Collins calls this Level V Leadership—having ambition for the organization and not for yourself.  He found great business leaders have ambition for their organizations.  In the Army I learned that officers  always ate after the troops.  It wasn’t that we would run out of food.  It is more that as an officer we wanted to demonstrate that we put our soldiers’ lives above our own.  If you’re a soldier and your life is in danger, who would you rather work for—a person who cares for your life more than their own, or someone who is personally ambitious?

When I would speak to new recruits, particularly at business schools, I would often get the question, “How do I become a CEO?”  I really did not like the question.  I didn’t like the focus.  It seemed the focus was about “me,” and about a title and position.  I would counsel that it is the wrong question to ask.  If one focuses on becoming a CEO, I doubt over a career they will get there.  One needs to have a greater purpose than that, a purpose more focused on improving lives, building people, caring for customers; not what do I need to do to attain a specific position.  In fact my counsel to those seeking a specific position is to be careful because by the time they are ready for that position, we may have reorganized the company, eliminating the position!

Taking Personal Responsibility For Your Actions

Another great part of character, which may not be popular in our society today, is to take personal responsibility for one’s actions.  I learned this my very first day at West Point.  It is called R or Reception Day.  You arrive as a “New Cadet,” not yet worthy of being called a Cadet.  You are the lowest form of life in the world, deeper in the deepest ocean than the heaviest whale.  That first day you are taught that anything that happens to you that first year as a Plebe, you have only four acceptable answers.  So imagine I’m going outside to formation, and a male upperclassman stops me, and asks, “McDonald, didn’t you shine your shoes before formation?”  So I would roll through my acceptable four answers in my mind.  I could say, “Yes, sir,” but that would not advance the situation.  I could say, “No, sir,” but that would have been an honor violation and gotten me thrown out.  So I relied on my third answer a lot—“Sir, I do not understand.”  I used that answer so many times that upperclassman thought I was hard of hearing! The right answer was, “No excuse, sir.”  In other words I had shined my shoes, not done a good enough job, and I had no excuse for not meeting the standards.  Implied in this answer is that it will be corrected and not happen again.

There is a collection of words in the West Point Cadet Prayer that has guided me throughout my life.  It goes, “Help me to choose the harder right than the easier wrong.”  Have you noticed that the easy thing is usually the wrong thing to do?  If you are doing something in business, and it feels too easy, get skeptical.  I remember when P&G bought the Gillette Company in 2005, and then CEO Jim Kilts told the story of how the company he joined was in trouble because it was shipping the majority of their product in the last week of each month.  The problem was the previous leadership had applied successively larger discounts each week to meet their monthly shipping estimates.  They trained their customers to wait until the end of the month to gain the maximum discount, disrupting the Gillette supply chain, increasing cost, and hurting Gillette from truly understanding the demand of their business.  Jim and his leadership corrected this.

Great Discipline Equates To Great Results

The point is that usually when things go wrong in an organization, they never start out as wrong as they end.  Enron started out running a legitimate business.  It is simply that when one small fraud is created, greater frauds have to occur until at the end one looks back and wonders how the organization ever got into that large of a problem.

A leader’s job is to continually raise standards.  How did I know if I had helped create a high performance organization, it was dry around the sink in the restroom or litter was picked up in the hallways of the building, or the soldiers shaved every morning while in the woods.  These are the little things which reflect discipline.  It has been my experience that if an organization has great discipline, they also deliver great results.  The leader must create this.

Character is the most important trait of a leader.  Character combines putting the needs of the organization above oneself, leading  with integrity, taking responsibility, and continually raising standards.  Always be on guard as a leader.  What seems like a small compromise on a small issue at a time could grow to be the downfall of the organization.

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