The probability that he will go to jail for what he did is almost zero. His lack of personal leadership resulted in thousands of people feeling violated, cheated and betrayed. If his patrons trusted him before, his impersonal approach to leadership shredded that trust in a matter of milliseconds. We won’t give our support to leaders we don’t trust.

2008 is an election year in the U.S., with selection of our next President taking the main stage. We want someone we can trust to lead us for the next four years. We’re willing to give our enthusiastic support to those we trust so that we can achieve significant results together. When trust is lost, disillusionment and disappointment set in, and the result is no results at all.

Blanked After 12 Years

On May 31st, 2008, the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC) newspaper published “School chief makes a name shredding Clayton diplomas”. John Thompson started as the new Clayton County Superintendent on April 28th, replacing Gloria Duncan. The AJC reports that on May 29th he ordered the shredding of 3,000 high school diplomas because his name was not printed on them. The very next day, graduates attending their graduation ceremony were surprised to discover their diploma was missing. They would have to wait for them to be reprinted, to arrive in the mail weeks later.

John Thompson shredded the diplomas because he could. The powers associated with his position enabled him to do that, despite the fact that he didn’t know at the time how much the replacement diplomas would cost the county taxpayers. He made an executive decision, and his motives have been called into question.

Upward Turns Outward

We can’t deny it is human nature to be selfish. Abraham Maslow’s pyramid illustrating the hierarchy of human needs acknowledges that we are driven at a primal level to satisfy our needs for food and shelter. We must selfishly take care of ourselves and what we need to survive before we can think about others’ needs. Unfortunately, some never choose to think of others even after they are far above survival level. Until we put aside our selfishness and develop an outward view that considers others’ personal needs before we consider our own, we can’t be trusted with a leadership role.

Selfish people can never develop trust with others. They take actions that serve themselves and then find ways to rationalize them. They offer explanations that often sound hollow to everyone but them.

– “We either give them two diplomas or get the right one mailed. We decided to have them wait for the right one.”

– “I took the initiative and I did it.”

– “It’s no harm. It’s just a sense of pride, and they will have it soon.”

These don’t sound like explanations, but excuses. If you are ever tempted to offer an excuse, it’s probably time to offer a sincere apology instead.

It’s Your Life to Lead

Personal leadership is all about how you lead yourself in your own life. It’s about the decisions you make and the actions you take, whether people are watching or not. It’s about learning to trust your own actions so that others can learn to trust you. It’s about developing the habit of doing the right thing all the time, even when it causes you inconvenience, expense or embarrassment. Here are three tips to help you develop your own personal leadership.

1. Serve Others before Yourself

While your self-interest and self-preservation are important, get in the habit of first considering how a situation or decision will impact others involved. Look for ways to give before you find ways to receive.

When Davidson College made it to the Elite Eight in the NCAA basketball tournament this past spring, the trustees of the College offered to give any student who wanted to travel to Detroit to see Davidson play Wisconsin a ticket to the game, bus transportation and 2 nights lodging. The trustees knew that this opportunity may not come again to the College for a long time, and they wanted their students to have powerful memories of the experience. They gave to the students without expectation of receiving anything in return, because that’s what they want their students to learn. Should you ever meet a Davidson grad (from any year) ask them what they think of their school experience. “Trustee” — what an appropriate title. Nearly 300 students took them up on their offer.

2. A Deal is a Deal

Follow-through on agreements you’ve made, even if they seem trivial or insignificant. If your voicemail greeting says you will call back anyone who leaves a message, either call everyone back or change your voicemail greeting. Inconsistency is the enemy of trust.

Often we are paid to deliver a service. Many of us make a deal to receive a paycheck in return for performing a job. Make sure you’re living up to your end of the bargain by delivering good service to your employer.

Some employees (like school superintendents) are expected to deliver service across multiple key groups: in this example, to students, to parents, and to taxpayers. Serving multiple groups before serving yourself requires a high degree of personal leadership. Thinking selfishly for even a moment can rapidly extinguish trust with one or more of your key groups. Keep your deals, and do well the jobs you are paid to do.

3. Better Kind than Right

Often we find ourselves in situations that offer us two paths. One path will give us an opportunity to say something like, “I’m right, you’re wrong, and I can prove it.” The other path gives us an opportunity to decide that proving ourselves right in this situation isn’t worth causing another person pain or embarrassment. Dr. Wayne W. Dyer suggests that often it is better to be kind than right.

Debates can be healthy, and sometimes it is necessary to clearly establish right from wrong. Other times, who is right really doesn’t matter. For example, a friend recently remarked about how overpaid CEOs are. While I was prepared to debate it from the other side, I chose not to because the outcome would be neither productive nor supportive of our relationship. While I didn’t agree with him, I chose to be kind when I could have been right.

Take Trust Personally

Trust is central to all our important relationships. Some try to dodge trust issues by insisting on written contracts. Personal leadership puts its trust in personal behavior, not a piece of paper.

It takes time to learn to trust others, whether we’re hiring them, electing them, or marrying them. Trust is earned over time, yet it is lost in a moment of irrational behavior. Always strive to do the right thing by considering others before yourself. Then others will consider you a leader worth following.

Copyright 2008 Paul Johnson