Qualities of a Superlative Leader – Personal Competencies #1 – Ethics and Integrity

On September 29, 1982, twelve-year-old Mary Kellerman of Elk Grove Village, Illinois, died after taking a capsule of Extra-Strength Tylenol. Over the space of the next few days, six more would die the same way. Most predicted that Tylenol would never recover from the sabotage.

But Johnson & Johnson handled the crisis ethically, with integrity. First they recalled 31 million bottles of Tylenol capsules from store shelves. Then they offered to replace those bottles free of charge with a safer tablet. Then, the designed a tamper-proof packaging system. A year later Tylenol had climbed to 30% of the analgesic market up from the bottom of 7% just after the tragedy.

Whoever was running Johnson & Johnson at the time did the right thing. They demonstrated superlative leadership. We sometimes forget that in all business at every level, someone somewhere makes decisions and takes action. It is not machines that do so. It is people, persons who sit in offices, stand before others, write papers, and issue directives. Corporations, businesses, boards of directors, organizations, departments, teams, and work crews are all made up of people whose decisions and actions will affect who knows how many others.

Back in 1962 economist Milton Friedman dissed the notion that corporations had a responsibility to society. “Few trends could so thoroughly undermine the very foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible.” Perhaps more than anyone else, he voiced the attitude that would typify and release decades of at time ruthless pursuit of profits at the expense of just about everything else. As good as he might have been in managing economics he couldn’t be more wrong about social responsibility.

Humans are genetically engineered to co-exist in communities where there are obligations to our selves and to each other, both explicit and implicit.

I am a capitalist and a free market capitalist as long as the basis of a leader’s greatness is not his or her ability to turn a profit, as vital as that is. But money at just about any cost and the ability to make money at just about any cost will not secure one’s place in the pantheon of superlative leaders.

There are a 7 personal competencies found in great leaders.  I will address only the first one here – Demonstrate ethics and integrity

Actually, to do anything more than introduce the subject in a short post is impossible. (Shameless self-promotion – The book “16 Qualities of a Superlative Leader” will appear shortly after the conclusion of this series. The difference between this series and the book is significant. Here I must, by virtue of the dynamics of the web, limit each article to relatively short lengths. The book contains much, much more material, more diagrams, longer explorations of each, and many more real life examples.)

One of the great unknowns of history is Sir John Dalberg-Acton. Sir John was a contemporary and close associate of William Gladstone, the British Prime Minister. Sir John is best known for saying that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

Despite the obvious cynicism, Sir John has proven to cannily accurate. Power does corrupt, even a little bit of it. Lots of power is even more dangerous. But I’m not sure that great men are even almost always bad men.

The examples of bad people in positions of power and authority are legion. But then, this only goes to validate what I’ve been saying about apparent greatness, leaders who are great on the outside while the inside may remain suspect, and essential greatness, leaders who are great from the inside out.

Integrity is one of those interesting words that most of us think we understand what it means but haven’t really thought that much about it. The root word forming integrity is integer – a whole number, a number that can be written without a fractional component.

So, we can conclude that a person of integrity is a whole person.

We are what we are.

The decisions we make and the actions we take emerge from a core that is either upright or in one stage or another of compromise. I did address a facet of this in a post I wrote in April of 2014 called “How to be a Stand Up Person in a Stoop to Anything World.”

Here are 6 indicators of ethics and integrity in a superlative leader.

  1. What you see is what you get. Superlative leaders have a core of morality and ethics and live lives that give evidence of it. One mark of this is the longevity of the inner circle, that team of associates who know a leader best. If there is regular turnover, it might indicate a problem here, that what they found was not what they thought they would find.
  2. What they say is what they do. Superlative leaders are people of their word. If they tell you something you can be certain it is true. If they promise something you can be certain they will deliver. If they ask you something you can be sure there are no sinister, Machiavellian motives.
  3. Who they are today is who they were yesterday and who they will be tomorrow. Great leaders are consistent. They do not blow hot and cold, waver in their commitments and intentions, or waffle in their decisions.
  4. What they have done is what they lay claim to. Superlative leaders never make excuses or shift the blame. They are not flawless nor are they error free. But if something does go wrong, they accept the responsibility for it, and here’s the important part, they do what has to be done to fix it.
  5. They live for the intangibles. Money comes their way because they are accomplished and capable professionals, but money has secondary meaning. So does position and fame. They are people of purpose and that purpose is never self-centered or self-promoting. Doing their jobs well is as important to them as getting the money for doing the job well.
  6. There are no secrets. Superlative leaders are accountable with time, effort, and results. They are not hiding anything from anyone in anyway. They are not misleading anyone by any means. There are no dirty tricks, no dissembling statements, no secret arrangements.

The leaders of Johnson and Johnson acted with integrity and ethics even though the personal cost was very high. Superlative leaders do nothing less.

Next post, trait number 2 – living with drive and purpose.

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