Leadership 101: Standing Alone

Our company had enjoyed a consistent stream of revenue from a long standing customer for over 20 years.  While we were not a single sourced supplier, we were a preferred one, being highly trusted and favoured. I was reminded of that special relationship when I assumed the role of President. To the shareholders and management, the margins we collected on the products we sold to this one specific customer provided significant bonuses and dividends, increasing our company’s and individual standard of living considerably. Six months into my new role, the customer decided to single source all purchases and accordingly, placed the entire product portfolio for public tender. The opportunity cost was approximately $20,000,000. Our competition was limited to one other organization whom we had fought with many times before for other contracts wining some and loosing others.  Keeping the existing business was more about our pride though than the margin enjoyed. All things being equal (i.e. price, quality, service), we had as good a chance of presenting the winning bid as the other. But, all things I discovered were not equal. My Director of Sales informed me our customer’s buyers were being “entertained” by the competition during a specific weekend in downtown Toronto and we were expected to do the same, if we desired to have our bid considered. I asked what “entertained” meant in our customer’s mind. The answer was simply inappropriate and so my response was quick and firm. I stated our organization does and will not conduct business on those terms. We will compete fairly in all areas defined in the RFP but we will not succumb to bribes and immoral or unethical conduct. I was told if I took such a position we would be in danger of loosing all of our existing business including any future opportunities. I still refused. My Director of Sales told me I was too honest to be a successful leader in our industry and company.

We did not win the bid. The business loss was significant but its impact did not reach the severity of the emotional damage (i.e. loss of pride) inflicted on our sales team and organization. I feared for my job. I questioned my decision. Did I do what was right? As a new President, winning such a major contract would have demonstrated to some my strong leadership and as a trained accountant I would have put to rest all concerns regarding my lack of marketing and sales knowledge and experience. But now, I was considered ineffective, the wrong person for the job.

I was isolated. The onslaught of their criticism was fierce. No one it seemed was willing to stand with me. I stood alone.

The words of Charles Swindol reminded me of the challenges of leadership and the temptations those in position of authority, power and decision face when chasing success. He wrote: “With great success comes greater measures of trust which leads to greater times of vulnerability”.

When placed in a position of leadership, the trust factor is paramount. When trust is breached, the right to lead is lost. The pressure to succeed is immense. When success is achieved our vulnerability is at its highest point. The temptations one will face to sustain success magnify. The success pressure intensifies and expectations from others mount.

Achieving success and the pressure to sustain It will be our greatest test as leaders.

There are many books authored with a core focus on “overcoming failure”. Likewise, there are infinite writings on how to become successful, in every aspect of life. But very few writers dare pronounce a warning to those aspiring to become leaders, on “how to cope with success”.

If you were told a prerequisite for leadership requires standing alone in times of difficulty, would you still be attracted to the role? If you knew constant criticism, consistent isolation, and unjust and untrue allegations were part of the leader’s daily intake, would you still apply for the position? If the leader’s job description stated “one must be willing to compromise one’s personal values for the success of the organization”, would you submit your name?

During our pursuit of success, seldom do we recognize the real challenges that will come our way. We are told the successful will be those who are willing to work harder and longer than the others; we are demanded to add degrees and designations to our academic credentials and engaged in continuing professional development in order to be given new responsibilities. Peers and counsellors tell us, to succeed we must network with the right people constantly. We struggle to find the right work-life balance and are informed we will have to compromise. All of those success factors are real.

But seldom do we learn about the vulnerability success creates, or recognize the temptations that will be fired at us. We are never informed there will be times when we may have to stand alone.

If put to the test, can you stand alone? Henry Kissinger wrote “A leader does not deserve the name unless h/she is willing occasionally to stand alone!”

Standing alone does not mean going it alone. It does mean trusting yourself and taking the risk to let yourself be seen, standing firm in your beliefs even when your internal voice challenges you with “What if I am wrong? What if I make a mistake? What will people think?” You can stand alone and be vulnerable at the same time. In fact, knowing when you feel vulnerable and having healthy ways of managing that vulnerability is one of the most powerful ways to connect and to lead. (Nancy Henjum).

When assessing leadership, many characteristics are considered. I have conducted hundreds of  360 Multirater assessments on mangers in my own company and for companies where I was asked to facilitate leadership development. I cannot refer to one single assessment where the ability to stand alone is listed. Yet, without reservation, leaders will always be challenged in this area.

Standing alone requires courage, tenacity, perseverance and patience. A leader must have the courage to announce his/her values; the tenacity not to succumb to pressure and compromise those values; the perseverance to keep fighting for what is right, true and just; and the patience to witness true success, that is success defined by “protecting ones integrity and maintaining ones trust worthiness”.

Do you have the courage to stand alone?

Consider these thoughts in a recent article posted by TransitionExecs (transitionexecs.com; author unknown).

“Developing our managerial courage is an important leadership quality. Leading isn’t always easy; it takes courage to lead people through challenging times. It can encompass making an objective decision and doing what is right under the circumstances. It is a quality we can’t always define, though it generally consists of our values, self-awareness, humility, confidence, objectivity and the willingness to take risks.

Saying what needs to be said at the right time, to the right people, in the right manner takes courage. If the stakes are high, it can be uncomfortable. When we take tough positions and speak out we can stand alone. Standing alone requires self-confidence and a strong sense of self. Leaders often stand alone which is riskier than following and requires a lot of internal security.

Leadership courage requires we must face the truth and express it. Sometimes it means we have the courage to rely on others or to make decisions in risky or uncertain situations. Certainly it means being outside of our comfort zone and pushing our limits. As leaders we have to express courage every day, at every level of our organization. As a leader we are often expected to act with courage.”

Do you have the courage to stand alone when it matters?

Merv Hillier

Your comments are welcomed. Please email me at: “merv@mervhillier.com”.

The views expressed in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Nuvision Consulting Group Inc. While the article refers to quotations from other writers, Merv Hillier and Nuvision Consulting Group Inc. do not endorse or recognize all of these writer’s views on various subjects.