I was leading an executive presence seminar and asked a young leader to come to the front to share a story he’d told in his breakout session about boss he admired. A couple of years earlier, this young leader had been assigned the task of analyzing the competitive landscape for launching into a brand new market after a recent acquisition. The company had estimated it could leverage the resources of this new company to quickly produce a new product and, within a year or two, become number one or two.

However, when the young leader ran the numbers, they didn’t support that assumption. The competition was way ahead and pricing was already competitive. It was clear they could not invest enough to compete. He now had to go upstairs to the senior leadership team to tell them what they most certainly didn’t want to hear.

After the SLT verified the analysis, they made a decision within a week or so to exit the business, though it had cost them a pretty penny to acquire and there would be an up front cost to sell. That’s where the story gets interesting.

It would be months before the M&A team would be able put together a deal and find a buyer. The SLT could have kept quiet about it in the meantime, not signaling to anyone until they were ready that they’d made a mistake. But this young man’s boss’s boss’s boss didn’t think that was right. He decided to go to the employees of the acquired company right away, to give them heads up that things looked uncertain, at best.

At the All Hands meeting, he openly admitted the company wasn’t sure what was going to happen, or when, but said he had decided to meet with them and share the news, because he didn’t want them to go out to buy expensive new cars or take out big mortgages. While I’m sure it wasn’t a pleasant meeting, you have to admire such character and courage. Conventional wisdom might have counseled him to wait and say nothing. But he lived by a higher principle, to do right by people.

Why did it have such an impact on the young leader standing there telling this story? He was amazed that a top leader in his company was wiling to risk so much to live by his values. We talked in the group setting about how it isn’t enough to think of yourself as a person with integrity. You have to live by those principles, if you want to build trust.

In our research on leadership presence we have noticed a fascinating correlation between qualities of leadership such as integrity, which matter most to winning trust and promoting goodwill, and qualities which are more about the way we communicate, qualities such as inclusiveness and interactivity. (See the Bates Executive Presence Model above.)

If you locate integrity, defined as “acting in accordance with ones values,” take a pencil and draw a straight line over to interactivity, defined as “a timely exchange of information to coordinate action,” and inclusiveness, defined as “broadening the circle, involving others and empowering initiative,” you start to see the connection. The quality and frequency with which we interact with others enables them to see and experience our character. And when they experience this often enough, when we have to deliver bad news, they are more like to respect us, or give us the benefit of the doubt.

It struck me that day in the classroom that this young leader would not have even had the temerity to get up in front of his peers if he hadn’t been moved emotionally by the experience. It stuck with him, that his boss’s boss’s boss, a leader they all know, had made that choice. He talked openly about how it had changed him and informed the way he treats his own people. As he moves up through the organization, that’s a lesson he will never forget and it will be contagious, permeating every team he leads.

By the way, that story also got a big ovation.

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