The imperative of PEAK leadership

By Cynthia Clark | 12/19/2016

PEAK leaders take the high road!

Photo of mountain peak

As a professor of higher learning, my very favorite course, among the many classes I taught and facilitated over the past two decades, was leadership and management in nursing and healthcare. As a student, scholar, and professor of leadership, I have studied great leaders and high performing organizations, often sharing my insights with others. In doing so, I have invited them to communicate their impressions as well.

Cynthia ClarkGreat leaders are visionary, trustworthy, honest, fair, innovative, inclusive, and creative. They use sound judgment, evidence, and data to make well-informed decisions. Frequently, great leaders are described as prudent, generous, compassionate, and humble. They inspire esprit de corps, hope, teamwork, and collaboration.

For years, I have engaged in deep, provocative, and stimulating conversations about characteristics and attributes of highly effective leaders and have discovered—unequivocally—that character matters. Some accomplished and influential leaders are clearly admirable. Others, though influential, are unethical, corrupt, and dishonest. We need—and should aspire to be—leaders who are principled, ethical, authentic, and kind, attributes I’ve encapsulated for quick recall with the acronym PEAK.

What does it mean to be a PEAK leader?

Principled leadership
Principled leadership is leadership whereby principles are a compass to guide our decisions and determine the direction we take, especially in turbulent times. Principled leaders are continual learners, service-oriented, hopeful, optimistic, compassionate, courageous, and synergistic. Being principled means we develop and live by a personal philosophy and a firmly established set of values and beliefs that engender trust, respect, and inclusivity. The challenge of every principled leader is to model honorable action and to make decisions that are consistent with one’s principles and values. Therefore, it is important to fully and deeply understand what we believe in and to live by a well-reasoned, purposeful, and solid set of core values. Principled leadership is a close cousin to ethical leadership.

Ethical leadership
Ethical leaders live and act according to a consistent set of values, putting the collective interest and mission of the organization above self-interests. Ethical leadership is often characterized by personal integrity, respect for the rights and dignity of others, and setting a positive example for all members of the organization. Ethical leaders are honest, considerate of others, and embrace the belief that character is defined by the way we behave and treat others. Ethical leaders lead by example, model the way, and recognize that respect must be earned. They focus on developing others, taking responsibility for their actions, and celebrating the successes of others. They do what is right rather than what is expedient, convenient, or self-serving.

Ethical leaders are frequent communicators who openly and clearly discuss new ideas—including opposing points of view—and alternate ways of doing things. Yet, they always focus on doing things honestly, fairly, and ethically.  They cultivate a positive work environment and hold themselves and others to a high standard of excellence and ethical conduct. They lead by example and regularly discuss the vision, mission, values, and goals of the organization and how each member contributes to its overall success. Ethical leaders are also genuine and authentic.

Authentic leadership
Authentic leadership requires deep commitment to self-awareness, knowing and understanding our strengths and areas where we can improve, recognizing our impact on others, reflecting upon who we are at our deepest level, and carefully examining our emotions, motives, goals, and core values. Authentic leaders act upon firmly held values and beliefs and inspire others to do the same. They are aware of their strengths, limitations, and impact on others. They are transparent, ethical, and emphasize honest relationships and open communication. Authentic leaders aspire to be genuine, self-actualized, and selfless. They are connected to other members of the organization, share a common purpose, and consistently demonstrate character and integrity. As Booker T. Washington once quipped, “Character is power.”

Kind leadership
Kind leadership is synonymous with compassionate and generous leadership. Many leaders prefer to lead from their head and fail to acknowledge the power of leading from the heart. Unfortunately, today’s political landscape and many workplaces are characterized by incivility and bullying, causing some non-PEAK leaders to take hard, directive, and sometimes abusive positions in order to force others to follow their command without question or recourse. In politics and in the workplace, we are experiencing a significant decline in common decency and basic civility. Some believe that leading with kindness and compassion are signs of weakness. But, in reality, it is just the opposite.

Leading with kindness and compassion is evidence of strength, courage, and mettle. Although many are loath to express emotions, especially in the workplace, kindness comes from a place deep within us. Expressing kindness in the workplace and simply being mindful of the effect our words and actions have on others can be a real leadership advantage. Leaders who exhibit kindness are more likely to foster trust, increase employee engagement, and achieve organizational goals. Compassionate leaders are open to listening and acknowledging input from others and avoiding outright dismissal of ideas or perceptions. They show appreciation, look for opportunities to praise and acknowledge others, and extend a generous spirit.

Given the heightened level of vitriol in American society following a decidedly divisive election season, I am concerned about the impact of these behaviors on our nation, our children, and grandchildren, and, honestly, on people around the world who look to the United States for ethical, principled leadership, vision, and positive direction. Yet, I remain optimistic that decency will prevail and decorum will carry the day.

I am convinced that if we coalesce and work together, we can achieve great heights. Despite the acrimony that seems to grip our country at present, we need to unite in our efforts to support and mobilize civility champions—PEAK leaders dedicated to making the world a just and better place. That’s what I aspire to instill in others—hope, optimism, and a path forward that leads to civility, possibility, and promise. I am convinced we are up to the challenge.

Editor’s note: Cynthia Clark will be presenting at the Creating Healthy Work Environments conference, slated for 17-19 March 2017 at the JW Marriott in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA. The theme of the conference is “Building a Healthy Workplace: Best Practices in Clinical and Academic Settings,” and Clark’s Plenary 1 presentation is titled “Creating Healthy Work Environments: Powered by Civility, Leadership, and Ethical Practice.” The early registration deadline is 25 January! To learn more and to register.

Cynthia Clark, PhD, RN, ANEF, FAAN, strategic nursing advisor and consultant for ATI Nursing Education, founder of Civility Matters, and author of Creating & Sustaining Civility in Nursing Education, is a psychiatric nurse/therapist and an expert in fostering civility and healthy workplaces.

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