Leadership : 7 Steps to create a Culture of Character

Rebecca Barnett is an author and motivational speaker on character-centered leadership. Rebecca has a dozen years of executive experience with American’s most admired and aggressive retailers, including The Home Depot and The Limited. Drawing on her research and corporate experience, Rebecca offers practical, pragmatic, experienced solutions.

She is a national referee and black belt in the Olympic sport of Judo. She is a Silver medallist in the 2001 World Masters Championships.

Contact Rebecca at info@winningyourway.com or vist Rebecca's website www.winningyourway.com

You don’t have to be a CEO, CFO or any other type of alphabet soup kind of leader to create a culture of character in your company. You can change your department and create the kind of company you are proud to lead. You can make a difference.

Not by rigidly following the rules or by handing down moral authority from on high like your own home grown version of the ten commandants. Not by forcing your values onto the people you lead. But by returning to the fundamentals of leadership that we learned long ago from our parents, churches and schools.

Many business leaders lost their way in the blinding white hot economy of the late 1990s. In those go-go times, it seemed like everyone was getting rich and no one was getting hurt. Many of us were caught up in caught up in winning at all costs, in a world of no absolute right or wrong, only increasingly sophisticated shades of gray.

Today, we have paid a high price for the giddy excesses and irrational exuberance of the late 1990s. Our unemployment is the highest in ten years, millions of investors have been burned by a bitter bear market and businesses continue to take up another notch in an already tightened budget belt. Now, somber and sober, poorer and wiser, we have paused to re-examine our priorities. How can we, ordinary business leaders, protect our companies, our careers and our 401( k ) ? The answer is to create a company culture where character matters.

Creating a culture of character begins with a firm foundation. It continues with becoming crystal clear on who you are and what you value. Where character-centered leadership becomes so powerful is when you can incorporate your core values into the organization’s values.

First, pause for a moment. Put this article aside and ask yourself, “What is my foundation ?” What is the first word that pops into your mind ? For 99% of people it is either their faith or their family. Invest the time and energy needed to firm up your foundation. It is the core, the bedrock that everything else builds upon.

  • Next, become crystal clear on what you value. Write down your top ten values. Choose from this partial list or add your own: accomplishment, achievement, adventure, ambition, authority, career, challenge, competition, country, discipline, duty, education, faith, family, freedom, good income, happiness, honor, influence, intellect, integrity, joy, love, loyalty, military, morality, patience, persistence, power, professionalism, religion, rewards, self-reliance, success, tradition, truth, wisdom, well-being. Now, cross off two values, leaving eight values. Cross off two more and then cross off two more until you are left with your final four core values. If you take this exercise seriously, you should feel uncomfortable each time you cross off a value, as if you are giving up part of yourself. It is critical to become crystal clear on your deepest held values.

  • When you can integrate your personal and professional values, you can live by those values in all parts of your life. As we become older and have a greater sense of self, our values become seamless – they become integrated into all that we do so that we can be the same person in all parts of our life. Who you are, not matter where you are. As we reach midlife we catch a glimpse of our own mortality. The people we grew up with and went to high school with suddenly drop dead with heart attacks or lose their fight with cancer. By the time we reach midlife, we no longer feel invulnerable. We begin to ask the big question, “What am I doing that is important and lasting ?” The truth is that above the mundane daily details of getting the job done, of meeting quarterly and annual performance goals, there is a larger issue of leadership and character. How you live and lead at work and at home makes a difference.

  • Communicate your values and the company’s core values through stories of leaders doing the right thing. In the mid 1990s companies invested significant time and effort developing their company values. Today, many of these carefully thought out value statements hang on the wall like a limp rag or gather dust in a drawer. They have become mere rhetoric because they are not reflected in the reality of everyday life at the office. Teach your people to speak a common language driven by their values. Bernie Marcus, founder of The Home Depot, would look squarely at the camera during an orientation video and say, “We take care of our own.” Home Depot modeled that value by taking care of its employees through illness and personal challenges. Even if your values statement was crafted by a gaggle of consultants, you can turn it into a meaningful message by rewriting it in your own words and modeling it for those you lead. Don’t just mouth the words, live and breathe the values through your daily leadership.

  • Choose an accountability partner to encourage you through the setbacks and to act as a reminder when you falter. We are all vulnerable to peer pressure no matter if we are 14 or 44. If we rely on “how does this make me feel ?” or following laws or social norms we can drift far away from doing what is right. Most business leaders are doing their best to live and lead by their core values without any encouragement or reinforcement. Surround yourself with people who share your commitment to character. If you can’t find any, start your own group.

  • Find a company with core values that compliment what you have already practice. Life is too short and careers are too stressful to fight an uphill integrity battle. Sam Starks gave up a corporate career that compromised his values. Today he passes down leadership lessons as he teaches college students. He says, “Working for someone without values will kill your spirit. It was a difficult decision to leave, but I didn’t like the company direction. I had to quit to keep Sam being Sam.”

  • Practice character in the small moments and everyday decisions. Character-centered leadership is more than good intentions. It takes practice and unsung successes. It is composed of moments, of small steps towards a new life. Character comes from doing the right thing and the next right thing and the next, until it becomes a habit and a way of life as natural as breathing.

Lastly, understand that character-centered leadership is not easy. Growth can be painful and uneven. You will make mistakes and fall short of your own high expectations. Despite the best of intentions, you will backslide into bad habits. Character-centered leadership is not a panacea for a trouble free life. Living and leading with character requires the maturity to accept that there will be temporary setbacks. Sometimes we have to operate within a system that is unethical, unprofessional and unfair.

And if character sometimes comes with a cost, it must be its own reward; at the end of the day, liking the person in the mirror, being able to sleep, when you lay your head on your pillow at night. At the end of your career, you can look back without fear that you let yourself down.
We can’t all become charismatic leaders, the kind you would walk over hot coals or chew off your right arm to follow. But we can all lead from our core values. We can create a culture of character where our people can put their values into practice. You can become the kind of leader that people will pattern themselves after; the kind of leader they will still talk about 20 years from now. And you can make a great difference. 

© Copyright 2003 by Rebecca Barnet. All rights reserved.

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