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Leading from the Zone: How Authentic Leaders Achieve Exceptional Results

by William W. Arnold with Vicki T. Gibbs

“The Last Boy Scout”: Sticking to Your Values

A nationally recognized business leader and senior executive recruiter once referred to me as “the last Boy Scout.” Now some people might take offense at being described that way, but I felt proud. I know the person who said that meant it in a positive way, referring to my integrity, and to the fact that I have values and principles that I refuse to compromise. To me, that’s what a good leader does.

I’m only sorry to be referred to as the “last” Boy Scout; in Corporate America today we need more authentic leaders - people of principle, who have an “immovable peg” ethic that is theirs unconditionally and who do not hesitate to speak about their beliefs. We need leaders who have been molded and shaped to see the world based on inner principles that they refuse to violate … leaders with integrity who believe in openness and in telling the truth. If you plan to play games, don’t be a leader.

More than ever, I believe that leadership today requires a person of high character and tremendous competence. Having one without the other, however, just won’t work. How sad to see a leader using his position to make himself feel legitimate, when the people who work for him know it’s all a sham; they know he’s all sizzle and no steak. Pretence will destroy a leader’s credibility; if a leader is continually spinning plates to keep everything moving, eventually the process becomes unsustainable and the plates start crashing down. Leaders like this can’t hide reality forever, and problems that get closeted away eventually surface and create an obstacle that the leader trips over.

Employees will uncover these leaders who are not authentic, and the reality that has been hidden by carefully constructed public perceptions gradually will burst the seams of the organization that has merely “dressed” itself for success. When people in an organization know something to be true and yet top management pretends this truth doesn’t exist, the company begins to experience what I call the “lily pad syndrome.” When you see a lily pad from the top you assume it has a well-connected root structure that stretches all the way to the bottom of the pond, but when you pull it up you discover it’s floating completely free of the bottom. I describe a leader who focuses on appearance or title rather than substance as having no root structure. They are fooling themselves and other people. The proliferation of this lily pad syndrome has resulted in the destruction of many companies.

Why do people let this destruction continue?
Quite simply, it’s a matter of survival rather than success. These people live in fear. They’re more concerned about saving their own necks and jobs than in seeing the right thing happen. Other times it boils down to plain old greed; people want to get theirs and they really don’t care enough about their organization to bring up issues that could rock the boat.

Plus, we live in a world where perceptions and appearances are everything. I see so many so-called leaders walking around with a title or position, who are completely disconnected from their “personhood.” In spite of Woody Allen’s sadly true quip that “80 percent of success is showing up,” some situations do actually require more from a leader than just the right title or a fashionable suit. Leaders must keep their sleeves rolled up, because they regularly face challenges and situations that give them an opportunity to show others that they are not just free-floating lily pads.