July 18th is Nelson Mandela International Day and commemorates his lifetime of service. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who spent time with Mandela over the years, told “CBS This Morning” that the former South African president taught him many life lessons.
Humility. Have a purpose. Have a vision. Be prepared to sacrifice. Be prepared to listen to the other side.” “And always be ready to change your mind, but never abandon your principals.” General Powell also commented on how Mandela’s was “a life well-lived” and “on purpose.”
Of the many tributes paid to Mandela, this was the one that struck me most deeply.
Fifteen years ago, I was fortunate enough to visit South Africa, and take a trip to Robben Island where I was shown around by a former prisoner. I was struck powerfully by the systematic way in which the apartheid government had set about creating a brutal, humiliating and dehumanising regime, intended to break the spirits of its political prisoners – from the bleak cell, barely 6ft square where inmates lived with nothing but a bedroll on the floor, a tiny stool and a ceramic pot – through to the racial discrimination that meant African prisoners were given shorts to wear and a poorer diet than their Asian or mixed-race (the so-called “coloured”) counterparts.
Six years to this day, I left my job after 8 years as a CEO and 25 years in senior managerial and leadership roles. I hopped on a plane bound for Barcelona, my spiritual home, and the start of a year-long sabbatical. I’ve never looked back.
But as I’ve been working on the origins of my own brand story, I’ve found myself thinking more and more about those 8 years in the trenches as a CEO. The successes. The mistakes I made. And the lessons I learnt along the way.
When you’re a business leader, the chances are you’re going to blow it with your people at some point or another. A decision you’ve taken is going to come back to haunt you. A hiring or firing decision will bite you in the proverbial. This is an immutable law of business.
But Uber’s problems go far deeper than this. Uber has been rocked by accusations that its management has fostered a workplace environment where harassment, discrimination and bullying are left unchecked. Earlier in the month, Uber announced that it had fired 20 employees following allegations of harassment after a separate investigation by a different law firm. While board member David Bonnerman resigned after he cracked an inappropriate joke about how much women talk in the boardroom. Ironically Bonnerman’s comments came during an Uber event actually designed to spotlight the changes the company would be making to make its culture more inclusive.
As a business consultant, it’s my job to question, challenge and occasionally call out my clients. It’s not always easy, but I know that if I want to help leaders to grow, I’ve got to be willing to lead by example and speak frankly. This is especially important when it comes to setting the tone and culture of a company.
That’s why I was baffled to read recent reports about how the UK Prime Minister’s two former aides, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, were allowed to behave. Negative briefings against the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Sending text messages containing expletives to cabinet ministers. And bullying behaviour towards MPs. These behaviours are indicative of a highly negative and toxic culture where senior aides seemly felt that they could behave without impunity.
I’ve always been a big proponent of candour in business, because straightforward, frank communication stimulates real debate. And debate is what leads to smart ideas, fast action and good employees fully contributing to the company they work for. Candour is a rarely discussed secret of the most successful businesses.
So why don’t we see more candour in business if it’s got so many advantages? Well, the fact of the matter is we’re socialised from an early age to soften bad news and to be nice about awkward subjects. Not to be troublemakers. Candour unnerves people.
Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.” – Albert Einstein
Over the past few weeks and months, I’ve been reflecting on what it means to lead with integrity. These reflections, prompted by the various elections which have taken place over the past year or so, have inspired me to start work on a series of essays under the banner Lead With Integrity™. Once complete, these essays will form the body of a book. This is the first essay; on the subject of truthfulness.
When I started thinking about what to ‘lead with integrity’ means, truthfulness was not on the list I made of key attributes. To be honest (no pun intended) it didn’t occur to me to include truthfulness on my list because it’s such an obvious and basic requirement. Isn’t it? How can you lead with integrity if you’re not truthful?
When we think of leadership traits, we typically think of vision, confidence, strength, charisma and decisiveness. An important leadership trait that’s often overlooked is humility. Humility is the antithesis of arrogance, an attitude that can severely damage our reputation and relationships with others.
As I’m writing this article in the middle of the Wimbledon Championships, let’s look to tennis for an example of why humility is such a pleasing quality. And then I’ll segue into exploring why humility is such an essential, albeit lacking leadership quality when it comes to business leadership.