Organizations do not magically achieve excellence—it takes high performing leaders to drive organizational excellence. In doing so, leaders must enforce the standards and values that are in the best interest of the organization, and this caretaker approach is called stewardship. West Point’s honor code is a great example of how the academy fosters stewardship in developing leaders of character. The West Point honor code is a corner stone to the character development of the Corps of Cadets. The code says that “A cadet will not lie, cheat, or steel, or tolerate those who do.” The Corps generally understands the importance of character within a leader who does not lie, cheat or steel, but they struggle to understand why it is so important to not tolerate a fellow cadet when they observe one of their own who has violated the code.
The answer is simple—the tolerance clause is all about stewardship. To uphold West Point’s mission of developing leaders of character, every cadet is responsible for enforcing the standards and not tolerating any deviation when it comes to honor. The three most critical components to a leader in the profession of arms are character, competence and commitment. The reason they are so important is the necessity to build trust between you as a leader with your subordinates, trust between you and your supervisors, and trust between the institution and the client – the American people. A violation of trust is the kiss of death in effective leadership.
Picture a member of your own organization violating the standards and values of your profession. He or she may be performing right below the surface of acceptable behavior, but when left uncorrected, the abhorrent behavior continues. At some point it is bound to be revealed, and when it does, it can’t help but bring condemnation and mistrust not only to this individual, but in the case of the Profession of Arms, it creates a breech of trust between our profession and the American people. Looking the other way and not confronting what we know to be wrong behavior allows a cancer within our organization to continue and grow. But if this errant behavior is identified and immediately corrected, the embarrassment brought upon the organization and the mistrust it created could have all been avoided.
A few years ago, one of our more outstanding cadets graduated and was commissioned and reported to his first assignment along with many of his West Point classmates. During his first field problem, the senior Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) in his battery (referred to as the First Sergeant – or 1SG) called him to his vehicle, pulled out a bottle of whiskey, offered it to him and asked him to join him as he drank from the bottle. Soldiers in the military do not consume alcohol while training and during duty hours, nor do they consume alcohol during a field training exercise. In combat or in a training environment, where training mishaps could translate into life and death situations, no one wants to follow a leader while under the influence of alcohol. Further, our client, the American people, entrust their sons and daughters to us to lead them 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and they expect us to lead under inconvenient circumstances while being of sound mind and body. When the senior most NCO in the unit is violating this sacred trust, it is something that must be corrected. No one wants this senior leader to set an example that is so abhorrent to our values and our character, and no one wants him leading America’s sons and daughters.
So now, suddenly and in a totally unexpected manner, this brand-new idealistic lieutenant is faced with a compromising situation caused by someone he was taught to listen to and to trust. What does he do? What would you have done? Surprisingly, and outside the honor ethic he was taught while a cadet at West Point, he looked the other way and failed to report the 1SG’s behavior that night. The non-toleration element of our honor code was not internalized to the point where he would have done the harder right and reported the senior NCO. He looked the other way. Eventually, the NCO’s behavior was identified and reported, and in the follow-on investigation it was reported that the new lieutenant had earlier observed the errant behavior and failed to take the appropriate action. The lieutenant received a letter of reprimand from the commanding general, and to the lieutenant’s fortune, it was not filed in his official file. (If it was filed in the official file, it would certainly lead to his removal from service in the Army). It was instead used as an opportunity to teach the lieutenant the importance of upholding values and standards, and it was a lesson that hardened the lieutenant’s character and commitment of institutional values.
Character, competence and commitment — three critical components necessary to build a culture of excellence and honor. Most of us understand right away why character and competence are integral in building this culture, and the commitment portion is often overlooked or not viewed in the same manner. Nothing can be further from the truth. There is nothing that can destroy the trust of an organization faster than when one of its members is allowed to be a part of the organization while displaying behavior inconsistent with the organization’s values and standards. When that occurs, the individual must be corrected and brought back within the parameters of acceptable behavior. If not, that person can drag others into a similar behavior pattern, bring discredit to the organization, and most harming, lose the trust between the organization and its client, and in the case of the profession of arms, a loss of trust between the military and the American people. What a terrible indictment if that was to occur.
While the example above highlights West Point and how the academy has approached stewardship in enforcing its mission of developing leaders of character, the topic is not about West Point, nor the military. Whether in sports or in business, stewards of high performing organizations do not tolerate any breach in the standards or values that are critical to success. Picture the team captain of a high performing basketball team playing in the Final Four. One of the players makes a mistake due to the lack of effort or carelessness, and you notice the team captain having a heated discussion with this player as they run back down court. Do you think the team captain is saying, “That’s OK, Mike, we’ll get them next time?” Instead, the team captain is most likely giving this player an earful, and in essence, acting as an organizational steward by not tolerating this lack of effort.
So, I challenge you to look at your business and what matters most. Are your leaders tolerating the breach of standards or values required to make your organization great? Can they have the crucial conversations required of organizational stewards? And if not, what new paradigm is being established? To get the business results you care about, being a steward of your organizational standards and values will be critical to your success. Otherwise, you’ll establish a new standard, and ultimately, a culture of low performance will follow.
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