Recent news about Whole Foods' CEO, John Mackey, indicates that he used a pseudonym ("Rahodeb") to post commentary on Yahoo's financial site. Nothing new in that.
However, the articles further indicate that his comments included negative remarks about his smaller competitor, Wild Oats (an acquisition target of Whole Foods). Mackey's response when questioned focused not on the ethics but on his expectations about being outed: "I never intended those postings to be identified with me."
What signal does Mackey's behavior send to Whole Foods executives and employees? That deception is practiced by their CEO and therefore an acceptable practice? What signal does this send to Whole Foods suppliers? That representations may not be what they seem?
Stephen M.R. Covey's important recent book, The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything , reminds us of the business case for being trustworthy and being seen as trustworthy. Character is first among equals in leadership requirements. Reputation takes years to build and seconds to destroy.
And Thomas Friedman's excellent Op-ed Piece (The Whole World Is Watching ) underscores a new fact of life these days: your behavior, words and deeds are part of a permanent record, enabled by the internet.
It is unfortunate that all too much information on the internet is posted by anonymous sources. We must each to some extent become investigative journalists seeking confirmation from multiple sources before we can use the information. And we hope that the press will be a resource in this regard. But when CEOs fail to ask themselves "What would my grandmother think if this comes to light in my home town newspaper? " they contribute to the all too widespread public perception that all CEOs care about is themselves.
Traditionally, character is defined as integrity or ethical behavior. I see it from a much broader perspective-a combination of values demonstrated consistently in daily behaviors: humanity, respect, and compassion for others; work ethic; integrity and ethical standards; and the courage to live by them.
And, let's get specific: character means that you do the right thing when no one is watching as well as when they are- merely avoiding getting caught is not what it's about, notwithstanding Mackey's comment. It means you go the extra mile to get things done and done well. It means helping others become effective at work and in their personal lives. It means being fair and consistent in your treatment of people and allowing them their dignity at all times. In a leadership or supervisory position at any level, you must not only live the values and set the example, but you must affect the culture and the business's processes so violations are the exception rather than the rule. It is part of your job. If I were asked to carve my definition of leadership character on a big stone tablet to be set up in the lobby of every office building, it would look like this:
ACT CONSISTENTLY WITH GOOD PURPOSE TOWARD THE ENTERPRISE AND ALL THE INDIVIDUALS IT TOUCHES -- IN ALL YOU DO
Character affects every aspect of leadership. It is the foundation for strength in adversity. It determines the number and quality of your followers and the sacrifices they will make for you out of loyalty in times of difficulty. It can enlist passionate customers to a brand by the millions.
And leadership character has become a key element in winning the war for talent -- a central survival challenge for most companies. You've probably met leaders in your life for whom you'd go the extra mile. Why? Because of the admiration and respect you feel for them and the pride you feel for being part of their organization.
So, character is neither idealism nor a mask to don and remove from time to time. Yes, it may require passing up short term (illegal or unethical) gain, but it is the core of long term sustainable success. If you are a mask, beware: your lack of good character will be visible to all at some point. If you have good purpose, it will come back to you many times over when you least expect it as well as when you need it.
Terry Thomas, actor, in the old film School For Scoundrels is teacher of a class on getting everything you want by any means necessary. When he is ultimately defeated by his own student in competing for the love of a beautiful ingÃƒ©nue, the teacher's last line is more or less: "You have won by the ultimate ploy - sincerity."
Finally, I truly believe these two statements to be true: the character instilled in us in youth is not fully operant until tested in the real world and it cannot but help to raise your own consciousness about moral choices by asking the right questions, role-playing, reading about real life experiences in situations involving moral choices and participating in new courses on business ethics and more.
Stephen H. Baum has been an advisor and coach to CEOs for more than twenty years, first as a partner with Booz Allen & Hamilton, the global consultancy -- where beyond the client work he was also on the appraisal and development committee and mentored young associates -- then as an independent practitioner. Stephen's book, What Made jack welch, Jack Welch is available from Crown Business. Visit www.stephenhbaumleadership.com