Value Systems : What Would My Mentor Do?

Mark Goulston is Senior Vice President of Emotional Intelligence at Sherwood Partners, a Palo Alto, California-based turnaround and growth consulting firm.

Author of 'Get Out of Your Own Way: Overcoming Self-Defeating Behavior', Goulston is also a professor at UCLA. In his work, he helps leaders and teams quickly recognize, accept, correct, and learn from mistakes.

Mark can be contacted through his website, or by e-mail;

Good judgment is one of the four characteristics of successful leaders. But how do you know what the right thing to do is - and when to do it?

Even with Sarbanes-Oxley and the pressure for leaders and boards to be, well, above board, we still live in ethically and morally challenged times. Nice guys may not finish last, but until there is clear evidence that some of them are finishing first and doing so because of their honesty, the needle is not going to move very far toward taking the high road instead of the low road.

Can you do the right thing before you know what the right thing is? Where does knowing the right thing come from? Is it instinctual and in our genes? Or is it learned and in how we were raised? Why do the right thing, when doing the wrong thing is sometimes so much easier, quicker, harder to detect -- and something everyone else is doing, too? Why bother making your life hard when you can make it easy?

Taking the time to learn the right thing to do in various circumstances -- and then do it -- is a matter of values more than anything else. If you value winning at any cost, how you play the game won't matter. But putting value on being the best you can be, testing your mettle against the best opponents, and then becoming even better because of it results in your having a winning life.

A couple of years ago I was a speaker at the Annual Association for Corporate Growth's (ACG) Middle Market Mergers & Acquisitions conference in Los Angeles. Arguably the most successful amongst the other perhaps more notable speakers was Michael Heisley, CEO and chairman of Chicago-based Heico Acquistions and owner of the NBA Memphis Grizzlies. Mike has made a career - and a bundle of money - buying underperforming companies and turning them around.

The ACG hosted the guest speakers at a cocktail party at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Mike attracted people to him like bees around honey. Everyone wanted his attention. When it was my turn to greet him, something possessed me to ask, "How much of who you have become was due to your father?"

Momentarily taken aback by this question, he pointed to a couple of chairs at a nearby table and said, "C'mon, let's sit down." Other people waiting for their audience with Mike may have been a little miffed, but I wasn't about to refuse such an invitation from this successful revitalizer of the rust belt.

We sat down and Mike shared the following: "Some of the best advice I ever received came from my dad. There was the time when I told him about a business I was about to buy that was clearly a win for me and a lose for everyone else who had any connection with the company. He looked at me and said, 'Why would you do a deal that helped you and hurt everyone else?'"

"It was as if he were saying, 'Mike, because you know how to take advantage of opportunities, you don't have to take advantage of people.' What I didn't realize at the time was that my father had so much confidence in my ability to be successful by knowing and doing the right thing, that I didn't want to dishonor his belief in me by being any less than he thought I could be. And I didn't. Like Jack Nicholson's famous line from the movie, As Good As It Gets , my dad made me want to be a better man. And I like to think I have."

That sense of judgment is a guiding principle that Mike tries to follow in his business and his life. Not betraying the trust of those less powerful than you is one of the best ways to inform you about what the right thing to do is. Knowing the right thing -- and then doing it -- is what causes not just success, but also the peace of mind that comes from a well-lived life.

One of the reasons Mike exercises his judgment with care is to honor his dad. You, too, can use your mentors, role models, and those authority figures that were more authoritative than authoritarian as your guides to knowing the right thing to do. Every time you are faced with a decision in which there appears to be a right and a wrong response, just ask yourself in your mind's eye: "What would my mentor say?" If you have the least bit of hesitation in running it by them even if only in your mind, there's a good chance that you're being tempted to do the wrong thing.

Usable Insight: Doing the right thing is what leaders do to honor the trust -- and to and be worthy of the esteem -- of the people they work with.

This article formed the second part of a five part series by Mark Goulston, originally published in Fast Company earlier in 2004.  The other four articles are available to read within the Value Systems section of the LeaderValues website.

Ó Copyright Mark Goulston 2004

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