Paul Raggio | It’s lonely at the top

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By Paul Raggio

A favorite book of mine, one I read over and over, is “Profiles in Courage.” Authorship is attributed to President John F. Kennedy, with Ted Sorenson as his ghostwriter. The book, published in 1956, became a best-seller, and Kennedy won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1957. Kennedy profiles eight senators covering years just shy of two centuries of our nation’s history. Each senator was heralded for some position or stance that went against their party’s political tide, causing them to swim in a sea of bellicose animosity spread by their peers.

Upon Kennedy’s reflection, their stances were righteous and courageous, and ultimately impacted the course of our history. He showcased places in time when groupthink, majority pressure, and the persuasiveness of the few challenged leaders’ honesty, integrity, loyalty and courage.

Leadership is a lonely endeavor. It’s not meant to please. It’s not meant to satisfy narcissism. It’s not meant for personal gain. It’s intended to inspire others to achieve feats they otherwise would or could not while upholding universal values. There are thousands of leaders, over time, who planted their feet on the ground battling the tide of their peers’ ideology. They, too, were heralded, albeit after shameless battering, for standing firm, resolved to uphold the universal values of honesty, integrity, loyalty and personal courage. We need such profiles in courage today, at every level of government, and the private and public sectors.

Honesty is a universal value even though dishonesty is so pervasive in our world. Be honest and demand honesty in return is a societal norm. Leaders tell the truth, not some of the time, but all the time. Be clear and don’t obfuscate, and if you don’t know the truth, say so. Recognize lies, no matter how small, have consequences, the least of which are distrust and erosion of your credibility. As the age-old saying goes, make honesty the best policy in your workplace because what you say will be trusted by those who heard you, and they may very well act on your words, to the benefit or detriment of themselves and others.

When defending the character of an individual, people most often claim integrity as the presiding, convincing universal value: “he is a man of the highest integrity;” “her integrity is unimpeachable;” “their integrity is without fault.” We seek leaders who “practice what they preach.” When they make a mistake, they preserve their integrity by admitting it, demonstrating remorse and understanding for their failure, and pledging to avoid making the same mistake again.

In leadership, if your integrity is questionable, it’s a career-ender, because it means you can’t be trusted to comply with the values, codes, standards, rules and regulations governing your office. It falls under the “do as I say, not as I do,” idiom. Leaders don’t believe in carve-out exceptions to rules because of their position, nor do they take advantage of the power consigned to their office or rank they hold to advance their agenda.

Loyalty is another universal value. Leaders and followers seek it, competitors attempt to undermine it, and its lifespan is fragile. Loyalty is earned, not demanded. It’s not a fabricated value, for those you seek it from will sense your credibility in offering it, and if they don’t, will assuredly park their loyalty with someone else. It’s always bilateral. If you seek loyalty, then you must give loyalty in return, no matter what position you hold. When either side of that equation is unbalanced, loyalty perishes.

Finally, there is courage. I think of Medal of Honor recipients when contemplating this value: U.S. military service members who indisputably performed acts of heroism in combat, well above and beyond their call of duty, resulting in the preservation of mission and life. It is our country’s highest military award for bravery and conferred upon those who demonstrated the ultimate courage in overcoming fear at their life’s peril, putting those you serve above your own needs.

Honesty, integrity and loyalty are challenging. Bowing to the weight of groupthink, majority pressure and the persuasiveness of a few is very tempting. As President Kennedy noted about the eight senators who stood their ground in the face of tremendous hierarchical and peer pressure, the courage to put those you serve above your self-interests, is a profile to be replicated by all. It may be lonely at the top, but if you succeed in practicing these values, you will have earned your profile in courage, firmly standing for what’s right for those you serve. This is how you lead, think, plan and act.

Paul A. Raggio is co-owner, with his sister Lisa, of One True North INC Leadership and Business Coaching Solutions.

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