By Tarra Mitchell
Do you ever look at your organization’s C-suite or read about the things high-profile people say in the news and wonder where the principled leaders are? If so, you’re not alone: systematic leadership failures are deeply troubling. They leave observers and stakeholders asking: do you have to leave your ethics and morals behind to become successful?
The answer is no, and there is hope for change. We have the power to stop accepting unprincipled behavior by first raising our own moral compass. The time is ripe to acknowledge that principled leadership and high-performance can and do go hand in hand. In spite of what some might believe, you can be principled and lead successfully.
There’s a lot at stake. Unchecked, unprincipled leadership can steer whole organizations and systems off course. As we’ve seen, those abusing positions of power to harass, and abuse are notably toxic, infecting organizational culture for years and often causing great harm. Leaders who resort to instilling fear or knowingly make false promises to ‘win’ or gain an advantage are not really ‘winning’, rather ‘cheating’ using dishonesty and deception. Likewise, business leaders focused only on quarterly return figures and not on the long-term sustainability of their organizations are gambling with employees’ livelihoods. Our very democracy hangs in the balance when we resort to manipulation and unfair play to ‘win’ — such as in gerrymandering districts in the political sphere. We lose what winning should really involve. Each short-term win, void of principle, represents a deep spiritual and sometimes tangible loss.
So what’s with all the unprincipled leaders? In a nutshell: being principled is the more challenging path up front. Triumph and victory involve hard work and honest effort. Cultivating a long-term view means leaders must exercise their intellectual muscle and powers of persuasion to convince others of their vision and stay the course.
There’s also a dangerous myth floating around in the ether, that, while you might reach a modicum of success as a principled leader, it takes shady dealings and a small group of complicit followers to succeed at a very high-level.
But as I’ve seen time and again, it’s better to get folks to enlist than be drafted. True winning is about winning people over, inspiring them. As a principled leader, you must acquire deep knowledge and communicate the right messages to the right people so they willingly ‘enlist’. Then, they will want to support and follow you. People want to follow principled leaders who share a hopeful and promising vision of a brighter future and who orient efforts toward noble goals.
So how can you become a more principled leader? Inspired by kriya yoga, referred to as the work of the yoga practice, the following three efforts combined support both high-performing and principled leadership:
Principled and high-performing leaders are disciplined people. They put their personal health, well-being and state of mind on their priority list, and strive to perfect their systems and routines. Successful leaders are disciplined at work and at home. They are fueled by the mindset that they want to do their very best, so they prioritize a disciplined approach in most aspects of life. They cultivate healthy habits that support their vibrancy so they continue to operate as high-performers that engage and inspire others. Such habits may include:
- Getting a full night’s rest, often waking up early and going to bed early.
- Supporting physical and mental wellbeing with proper movement and dietary choices.
- Allowing space in their calendar to focus on their own priorities and do the work that wouldn’t get done with an over-packed schedule.
- Consciously working on self-awareness, control over the mind and senses, and intelligent use of emotions in service of their leadership.
- Rarely, if ever-shifting blame onto others for their mistakes and misfortunes, opting instead to tune into why they’re having an off day or week and focusing on resetting.
- Working hard and expecting the same of their teams.
- Prioritizing rational, reasonable, and realistic behaviors.
- Knowing when to call it a day and recognizing that overworking is unproductive.
A principled leader reflects on his or her own actions, intentions and vision. With a beginner’s mind, principled and self-reflective leaders are humble and know they don’t have all the answers all the time. They are consummate learners eager to do better and to learn more about themselves and others. With humility, they listen to the views and opinions of others and feed their base of knowledge. These self-aware leaders are then armed with new insights and a broadened awareness of the true nature of the situation at hand. Knowing that perfection is an illusion, they open themselves up to others by sharing their personal successes and failures to serve as teaching moments. They see mistakes as opportunities to learn and develop themselves.
Armed with vision and goals, principled leaders consider that all acts, works, and even thoughts should be oriented toward benefiting something greater than themselves. Their internal compass points towards improvement for all. Principled leaders know that when they apply this ethical framework to their days it helps them feel whole and makes them feel good inside. It offers them meaning and purpose and satisfies the inner sense that knows that we are all human and we are all in this together.
While this may sound like a grand effort, it’s not about saving the world. This quality is in the present and can be targeted toward something specific – like trying not to use words, tone, or take actions that harm others. This may sound rather simple and small but is quite large when implemented all the time, every day, every week, every month, every year, year over year, with every person that you meet and in consideration of every decision that you make. An orientation toward non-harming at work and in life can be pursued as a life-long effort.
When performed as a triad, discipline, self-study, and orientation mean successful and principled leaders show up and do their very best all the time. These qualities invite a perpetual mode of self-betterment that keeps each leader humble and growing, all while directing and measuring their regular and small efforts toward leaving the world a better place where all humans have an opportunity to thrive.