The True Secret of Leadership

An unflinching look at the challenges of leading with honor

ScalesWhat is it you came here to learn? That honesty, compassion and integrity are indispensable leadership qualities? Actually, if you’re reading this, I suspect you already know that.

Or, did you come here to be told something else? Are you looking for someone who will say that being honorable, chivalrous and trustworthy will guarantee you profits, popularity and success? If so, you may be in for a shock, because none of those things is true.

The fact of the matter is that holding yourself to a standard of principles and ethics, like the Code of Chivalry, is like going into a battle with one hand tied behind your back. When you’re in fierce, spirited competition, a sense of honor becomes a very palpable hindrance — a small, fragile roadblock placed in front of a very short and easy path to success.

As any number of proud warriors, wise philosophers or great leaders throughout history would undoubtedly have told you, honor is a very difficult road to follow. The trail is a long and winding one, and when you get to the end you’re likely to find that all those folks who were willing to step over the roadblocks and take the shortcuts have finished the race ahead of you. And there is a great temptation to think, “Next time, I think I’ll take the short and easy path too. Why not? Everyone else is … ”

Obviously, the reasons for taking the longer road are self-respect, character and dignity. I’d like to tell you those are prizes that are clearly and indisputably worth every lost sale, missed opportunity and diminished financial return — but I’d be lying to you if I did. Dignity and self-respect can be bitter compensation when someone else has landed the big account, won the trophy or gotten the coveted promotion because they were willing to cut the corners, tell the lies and stoop to the depths that you would not.

I’d also like to tell you that there was a poignant, affirmational conclusion to this article, but that’s not the case either. Although trust, teamwork, fair play and optimism are necessary components for good and effective leadership, they can be subverted by exploitation, corruption and manipulation in almost any given situation.

But those of us who value chivalry and honor must go into our battles with open eyes so that we’re not caught by surprise when we come across the sleazy, dishonest path. We have to acknowledge what we’re giving up in order to strengthen ourselves against the innocent temptation to take just one step beyond that roadblock, just to see where that short, easy path will lead.

I hope you didn’t come here to learn that being a chivalrous leader will instantly make you more money, get you a nicer office or entice people to eagerly follow your example. Some of those things may follow eventually, but on this road there are no guarantees. You may spend your life toiling in obscurity, only to find that the long, winding path never reaches the destination you’d hoped for.

Being a chivalrous leader, however, means you don’t have to cross your fingers when you talk to your children about commitment and responsibility. It means you’ll never have to review your mental list of “who knows what” before starting a conversation. It means you can look in the mirror each morning and be satisfied with what you see there.

Is that enough? If you’re a leader, it’s a question you’ll ask yourself each and every day; it’s a question only you will know the answer to. That answer will probably be the most important “leadership secret” you’ll ever find.