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John R. Ryan
Military/Administrative leader

John R. Ryan

John R. Ryan is president of the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, a top-ranked, global provider of executive education.

Offer redemption, then show the door

Question: Despite suspension over honor code violations and an ongoing investigation into his recruitment, Auburn's Cam Newton last week won the Heisman Trophy--an award meant to honor "pursuit of excellence with integrity." The award raises a dilemma faced by many organizations: In dealing with top performers, how much should leaders overlook corner cutting, rule breaking and other integrity issues?

Spending time with my five grand kids always reminds me that children are great mimics. Spending a few minutes with the daily newspaper reminds me that adults are too--and often with far less charming results. As leaders, it's crucial to remember that the men and women in our organizations will model our behaviors and actions, for better or worse. If we cut corners, break the rules or otherwise compromise our own integrity, the bad headlines we deserve will often follow. We can't tolerate that behavior in ourselves or others--especially top performers--because the rest of the organization will follow our lead. The ultimate outcome: a seriously infected culture. Think Enron or, more recently, the financial institutions that helped trigger a global recession through unsavory lending and accounting practices. Those disasters didn't just happen randomly. They incubated for a long time in cultures that looked askance at signs of trouble.

This isn't to say we shouldn't give our people second chances. We're all susceptible to a lack of humility; we can all make mistakes that are potentially fatal to our careers. So if a top performer or someone else makes a serious misstep, maybe that shouldn't instantly mean the end for them. But they'll need to earn back the trust they've lost--and, as leaders, we need to come to terms with the possibility of letting talented employees go even if losing them could hurt our bottom line in the near term. I'm an alumnus and former superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy. There have been occasions over the years, for example, when our football team has needed to dismiss outstanding players who again broke the rules after they'd been warned once. It's painful because our team needs all the good athletes it can get. What we need more than that, though, is the integrity of our institution and graduates who are prepared to serve the nation honorably in peace and war. In the end, through hard work, focus and a consistent system, we've found ways to win without making unfortunate compromises.

Instead of waiting for top performers to self-destruct, or hoping that they don't, we can try to get out ahead of trouble by confronting the issue promptly. If they understand and accept accountability for their actions, then we can provide the appropriate coaching and support. We can also ask leaders at all levels a simple question: What do I want the headlines to say when I depart? Keeping long-term legacy in sight can be a valuable part of organizational culture--and, individually, it can help us stay on the right path when the inevitable temptations to veer off it emerge.

By John R. Ryan

 |  December 15, 2010; 1:39 PM ET
Category:  A leader's team , Accomplishing Goals , Corporate leadership , Ethics , Failures , Making mistakes , Organizational Culture , Self-Sacrifice , Wrong-Doing Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Integrity is essential | Next: Cam being Cam


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Amen, brother. Many of today's coaches take the easy way out, and overlook what I call large transgressions. Any stooge can do that. My son is at an academy currently and loves being part of a lasting legacy of integrity. Go integrity!!!!!!

Posted by: rlmayville | December 15, 2010 10:34 PM
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