The Art of Leadership: learning to trust your instincts and lead from the heart.

In today’s world it seems as though there’s no shortage of examples of leaders being compromised by ethical issues. Whether it’s corporate CEO’s, elected officials, non-profit executives or the heads of organizations at all levels, the headlines are full of examples of what not to do in a leadership position but the same type scenario seems to repeat itself with an unnerving frequency.

I remember asking my father Bill, a very ethical CEO who was both loved by his employees and respected by his peers, some ideas for topics for a public speaking class I was taking back in college. His number one response came as a surprise to me although in retrospect it probably shouldn’t have: business ethics. He went on to explain to me his view that issues with business ethics would become an epidemic in the future and unfortunately he was right on target.

In looking back I think my father, a very wise man, was using this topic as a teaching experience for me more than a way to help hone my public speaking skills. As this was during the early nineties, my research and subsequent speech predated many of the major political and corporate scandals which have transpired over the past several decades. However, more importantly for me personally is the fact that my father’s turning my attention towards this issue predated my chairing boards of directors, helping to run a small business, running a non-profit and ultimately serving as mayor of Augusta, Georgia.

Through the years I’ve become fascinated by the transformative power of true ethical leadership and the lasting impact leaders who lead from the heart can have on the organizations they serve. In discussions on this topic it always seems that the common denominator of what the average man on the street wants to see from their leaders is relatively simple: they want leaders who are transparent, they want leaders who serve the greater good and they want leaders who simply “do the right thing”. The first two principles are more or less easy to grasp and understand as we have many examples of leaders who are transparent and who’ve focused on serving the greater good. However for a leader to “do the right thing” in the eyes of those they serve gets to be a bit more tricky and entails truly learning to trust your instincts while at the same time leading from your heart.

Having experienced the world of politics firsthand I’ve come to understand that the idea of “doing the right thing” is subjective and ultimately the right thing for one constituency might no be the right thing for another. However, I also found that doing the right thing tied directly back into and was a fundamental part of another of the inherent things people expect of their leaders: serving the greater good. During my early experiences in leadership positions I was able to develop my instincts with regards to making decisions based on the greater good of any organization I served while not catering to any one given constituency. In retrospect this experience was invaluable when I decided to become a public servant.

After being elected in 2005 I was well aware I had never served an organization comprised of 2700 employees and 200,000 citizens (whom I viewed to a large degree as valued shareholders in the city) and that any decision I made was going to make someone mad. However, I realized early on that no matter the size of the organization this simple principle holds true: if you’re fair in your decision making and you can easily explain your reasons for making the decisions you’ve made you quickly develop an invaluable reserve of trust and respect within the people who your decisions impact as a whole. With this principle firmly at the core of my decision making process I was able to build public trust in my leadership while serving for nine years in office and being elected three times with an average of 64% of the vote.

My heartfelt leadership, trusting my instincts and focus on serving the greater good were put to a major test during my final year in office. For seven years prior, the city had implemented no tax increases, while at the same time going several years without giving our employees raises, thus putting our city finances between a rock and a hard place. Prior to public meetings on the potential tax increase, eight of my elected colleagues on our ten member Board of Commissioners had voted in favor of the increase. However, after a limited, but very vocal, number of people in attendance at the public meetings voiced their great displeasure with the proposal the original eight votes were no longer there.

When the proposal finally came before the body the votes for and against fell into a five/five tie with my vote serving as the tie-breaker. Without hesitation I voted in favor of the tax increase both allowing for employees to get raises and to increase much needed revenue flow into our city’s operational budget. The reasoning for my decision was simply based on sound business principles. In order for a business to be sustainably successful employees must be valued and rewarded over time for their hard work in order to maintain staff moral. At the same time, no business can operate functionally over time without increased revenues and expenses (gas, electricity, etc.) continue to increase for a city just like any other business. Though I certainly didn’t want to raise taxes, in this case serving the greater good meant having to make a decision I knew wouldn’t sit well with some people.

Although many of my colleagues thought my decision would lead to a public outcry against me, in the end that was not at all the case. Ultimately I received three angry emails and one public rebuke. It’s interesting to note that I also received very vocal public support from the man on the street applauding my decision as people understood my reasoning for it. Believe it or not, I even got a high five out of it while I was out on an afternoon run. My instincts had been correct and the vocal minority against the tax increase had been just that: a vocal minority. My decision had both served the greater good and been the right thing to do.

Learning to trust your instincts, to serve the greater good and to lead from the heart is not an easy proposition. Many times it will place you in positions where your leadership may be questioned and your decisions may very well seem counterintuitive to public opinion or the sentiment of vocal constituencies within whatever organization your leadership role may serve.

However, at the end of the day a focus on decisions made through time tested good instincts and on behalf of the greater good will undoubtedly lead to your becoming a more trusted and respected leader. It will also lead to your leadership role having a lasting impact which will serve your organization long after your season of leadership is over.

Whatever leadership role you currently find yourself in I hope this story helps benefit you in your efforts and if you enjoyed it please feel free to pass it on!

(This story is dedicated to my father Bill Copenhaver who both set me on a journey to find and served as my True North.)

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