Am I Disabling My Future as a Leader?

"Am I consciously thinking about the type of leader I want to be? Or am I so busy trying to succeed according to my organization’s or boss’s scorecard that I’ve forgotten I have a say in who I am?"

These questions are applicable to all leaders no matter their stage of life, but they are especially applicable to up and coming leaders in their 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s. And its these questions that grabbed my attention this week through an unnerving charitable experience.

Earlier this week I went online to make a donation to a large, well-known, international charity. It is a non-profit that allows its donors to financially contribute on a monthly basis to meet the physical and spiritual needs of children growing up in disadvantaged situations. Each year at this time, they invite donors to make a contribution over and above their normal monthly giving in order to provide Christmas presents for their sponsored children. My family and I have regularly participated in this additional donation. (We certainly wouldn’t want our sponsored child to be the only one on the block without a Christmas present.) 

I clicked on the email which invited us to make the donation. It took me to a web site that showed a picture of our sponsored child, listed his name, and had a button to click to donate. I clicked on the donate button and was directed to the final page to confirm the donation. I was about click the confirmation button when I noticed something odd: the line that described my donation said I was making a donation to a general Christmas fund rather than a donation to purchase a Christmas present for my family’s sponsored child. I went back to the email and clicked through the process multiple times; each time I ended up with the same result.

Hoping that there was a technical error occurring, I called the charity to ask a few questions. The representative of the charity confirmed that the organization was, in fact, using the name and likeness of my sponsored child to get me to donate to a general Christmas fund within the organization. The representative confirmed that the process was intentionally deceptive. He somewhat apologetically cited the psychological realities behind their choice to be manipulative. I shared that I thought this type of behavior violated the core values of the organization. The representative agreed. Upon confirming that the call was being recorded for quality and training purposes, I asked the representative to share the call up the chain of command. He sounded sympathetic, thanked me for my feedback, and made a comment about hoping higher ups in the organization would make a change to their manipulative practices. 

This is a good charity. They do lots of good in the world. But somehow, someway the leaders within the organization consciously decided the best way to engage with their donors—the donors who enable them to do the good they do in the world—would be to fool those donors into donating money into a different part of the organization than they thought they were donating. And they even offered an auto renewal feature so the deceptive donation could be executed each year moving forward without the donor having to agree to it again. It was as if they were saying, "Hey, if we can get you to use auto pay, we only have to fool you once. Otherwise, we’re going to have to fool you every year."

What Actually Happened

Let’s pause for a moment and think about this from a leadership perspective. Consider the internal conversations that resulted in the decision to use this deceptive tactic to get money from donors. Rather than work harder to raise the needed money, those in charge decided that manipulation and deception were the best courses of action. For a campaign of this scope in an organization of this size, numerous leaders consciously agreed to fool their donors. Not only did they decide to do it, but then they had to involve others within the organization to build the technology to execute it. 

Think about the number of people within the organization that are now witnesses to this. These witnesses now have a tangible example that, when it comes to finances, leaders within the company are willing to deceive others to get what they want. Yes, it may be for a good cause, but they aren’t above lying to others to get money. 

The Currency of Leadership

Trust is the most important currency within leadership. Nothing is more valuable. When those we lead see us deciding what to do based on what we can get away with or what is legal rather than what is trustworthy, the trust between us and those we lead is damaged. 

For up and coming leaders, it is never too early to consider who they are becoming and the legacies they are building. As high potential leaders strive to earn both promotions and the favor of their leaders, are they considering the messages that their choices are sending to others? They might be able earn their way into greater professional opportunities by agreeing to any number of allowable actions, but what is it costing them as they do? Are they becoming trustworthy leaders in the process? Are they becoming the types of leaders that followers would bend over backwards to follow? Or are they, in reality, only lemmings with the facade of a leader?

Can ≠ Should

Just because you can get away with something, doesn’t mean you should. And just because your boss or organization wants to do something, that doesn’t mean that action will make you a leader whom others will want to follow. Remember, everyone is watching (…always!). They are learning who you are. For ascending leaders, you aren’t merely completing projects and earning promotions; you’re developing your identity. You’re telling others who you are. You are letting them know whether they should trust you and fully engage their discretionary effort to follow you.

If any part of your grand master plan for success is based on people not fully understanding what they are getting into, you’re taking your own leadership reputation and the brand of your organization out for a dangerous walk next to a very steep cliff. There are any number of strategies from accounting to incentive programs to sales processes that fall into the legal-but-shady category. Going along with such plans might get us temporary success, raises, and promotions, but such tactics won’t make us trustworthy leaders worth following. They won’t make us the leaders that followers pine to support over the long haul. And that’s important, because it’s the engagement and commitment of followers over time that causes leaders to become both great and effective.

PS I made a donation despite the situation. The charity’s representative walked me through the rather complicated process that resulted in a Christmas gift for our sponsored child. So no worries: our sponsored kid is going to have a happy Christmas.

Share Your Thoughts: Have you encountered critical moments in your development as a leader when you had to challenge your superiors to take a more trustworthy path? If so, what happened as a result of challenging them?  We'd love to hear from you. Join the conversation by clicking here.

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