Have you ever been in a situation where a titled leader appeared to be genuinely sincere and compassionate? And later you realized that throughout the organization people were asking if that leader really walked their talk?
Last summer my husband and I had the opportunity to vacation in France, and at the recommendation of friends we visited the Palace of Versailles, never expecting to find some of the answers to those questions…
Because I took no time to research the palace or the gardens prior to making the trip, I was completely unprepared for what I saw and every time I think of it I am still in awe.
- The gardens are on 800 hectares which is the equivalent of 1,976 acres of land in the United States.
- The gardens have over 200,000 trees and over 210,000 flowers.
- To see the gardens you wander down paths between maze-like hedges, which are lined with marble statues.
- Each path leads to one of 50 gorgeous water fountains.
- In the middle of the gardens lies a cross shaped Grand Canal for boating and fishing.
- And situated on these spectacular grounds are the Palace, the Grand Trianon & Marie-Antoinette’s Estate.
At first I walked the grounds in complete awe of the beauty there. It was so easy to imagine the Kings and Queens of old, hosting majestic balls, summer events, and hunting parties. Then my thoughts began to turn from the majesty of the place to wondering what it was like to live there.
Ultimately my thoughts turned to the people outside of the palace grounds that were starving, as royalty and their court lived so divinely. The differences were so extreme, and seemed so visually-obvious that my first reaction was to judge the intentions of the royal family, that thought-process was quickly followed by an deeper desire to understand:
- Did all of the ancient royals lack character?
- Did any of them recognize their Achilles Heel?
- Was it possible to be born in an environment that encouraged egos to grow in magnitude through the constant acquisition of more possessions, and more power and yet have the vision to contribute to a greater good? If so, how hard would it be to change the paradigm and lead by serving?
As I began to imagine that some of the royal family could learn that there was more to life, and be committed to making a difference; their role was so visually staggering that it was obvious that they would need several wise advisers that were brave enough to hold the king or queen accountable to that vision. Those thoughts then lead me to focus on the advisers themselves, knowing that no matter how wise those those advisers were, they too would face would face temptations of pride, power, and possessions.
- If those advisers were accountable to the vision of the greater good, and to leading with integrity, if they listened, served and advised based on those things, everyone would be more successful.
- If however, those advisers were in it for themselves and withheld or skewed information to achieve their own desires the king or queen would make uninformed decisions that did not address the real issues impacting their people, their country. Which would ultimately expose their second Achilles Heel and negatively impact their results and their reputation.
Since my return home I continue to think that Versailles gave me a visual that emphasizes a basic truth in leadership. We are all human and all have Achilles Heels. If we choose to lead with character we must be proactive about preserving that character in ourselves and in those closest to us.
Several months ago I received a message over Twitter from someone confessing that he has often overlooked poor character because of someone’s great skills. I don’t know the circumstances of that specific story. I do know that over-looking someone’s character because of their skills has brought down entire organizations and caused grief and pain for thousands. And I know that when those closest to a leader encourage the leader to limit their contact with employees and customers, the leader is being cut off for a reason. And that where there is smoke, there is usually fire.
I believe Abraham Lincoln actively practiced a solution for this issue. In the bookLincoln on Leadership by Donald T Phillips, Phillips emphasizes that with the exception of times Lincoln was very sick and when his son died, he was out of his office a minimum of 5 days a month and sometimes more than 10 days a month engaging with people, asking questions, and learning… During that time, Lincoln spent time with congress, military leaders & troops, touring battlefields, inspecting weapons and shipyards, and visiting with the sick and the wounded. When he had to make a decision he was better prepared to make it based in facts and with an understanding of the entire picture. Years later Tom Peters and Robert Waterman named this principle MBWA – Managing By Walking Around.
My take away from all of this is that the foundation of great leadership and organizational strength are the same. In order to give either one a strength that will endure, I must have a pro-active plan in place to seek out and preserve truth. My plan includes:
- A list of values to stand on and never compromise.
- The open invitation to employees, peers, and customers to hold me accountable to those values.
- The commitment to hire people with the same values as the organization.
- The discipline to hold staff at every level accountable to keeping those values.
- To Manage By Walking Around – Being present and engaged with employees and customers.
Which path will you choose?
- The one that fuels pride, and strokes your ego?
- Or the path that goes against traditions and hierarchy to serve a greater good?