The location, orientation, and strength of a building are determined by its cornerstone. And just as a building needs that firm foundation to be strong, any organization also needs a basis of strength and purpose that orients and guides its actions. These things come from its leaders. These are its cornerstone. The question is, as a leader, how are you defining your Cornerstone of Leadership?
The Cornerstone: More Than Just a Rock?
If you do an internet search for quotes involving the word cornerstone, you get all kinds of results. Everybody under the sun is saying something is the cornerstone of something else.
Home ownership is the cornerstone of a strong community.
Fairness is the cornerstone of good economic policy.
Trade is a cornerstone of global development.
Forgiveness is the cornerstone of healing.
Honesty is the cornerstone of success.
A free press is the cornerstone of democracy.
The list goes on. But what exactly is a cornerstone and why is it that everyone wants to refer to it as elemental to something important?
I’m sure you are aware that a cornerstone is typically the first block laid down in construction of a building. But listen to how Wikipedia describes the corner stone:
“…the first stone set in the construction of a masonry foundation, important since all other stones will be set in reference to this stone, thus determining the position of the entire structure.”
That’s the part worthy of note. Not just that it is first, but that it is the reference stone. It is the point of departure for every other aspect of the building.
The location of the stone determines the location of the building itself. And the orientation of the stone determines the direction and angle of the first exterior walls. All the other walls are related to the first ones.
Exterior walls influence interior walls, halls, stairways and rooms. Those in turn influence placement of windows, closets, and doors. And placement of these influence where the lights are wired in, pictures are hung, plumbing runs, where the chairs, tables and desks go, even where the coffee machine is placed. And ultimately where the people go (you are likely to find me near the coffee pot…)
All of this is influenced in a very real way by a single cornerstone. The stone sets the orientation and dictates the movement patterns of the animate and inanimate things inside and outside the building.
If you happen to be the builder, you want to be very careful and precise about exactly where and how you place that cornerstone; everything else depends on it.
The Cornerstone of Leadership
The same can be said of a leader and his organization. Obviously he’s not toting around a large masonry artifact in his pocket; rather, it is the leader himself who serves as the cornerstone.
Just as the walls take their cues from the physical cornerstone, so the teammates look to the leader to gage their actions, their behavior, and their decisions. How the leader orients himself will have an influence on every action taken by the members of his team.
But a leader is animate flesh and blood, not a stationary granite block, so what constitutes the basis of measurement? What is the cornerstone? I think Mickey Addison has it about right over at GeneralLeadership.com when he said that Integrity is the cornerstone of leadership. At least I think that’s where it starts.
But it goes beyond just a word. A cornerstone has dimensions, can be viewed from different angles. In the same way, many good leaders have sought to define what they mean by writing down a list of guiding principles, a set of values, or a code of ethics.
Lots of organizations have these. Many you may have heard of before.
The Scouts have the 12 points of the Scout law. “A Scout is Trustworthy…”
Doctors have the Hippocratic oath, summarized by the idea “First, do no harm…”
The Army has a great one that I’ve done my best to live by for the last 26 years – the Seven Army Values:
LOYALTY – Bear true faith and allegiance to the U.S. Constitution, the Army, your unit, and other Soldiers.
DUTY – Fulfill your obligations.
RESPECT – Treat other people as they should be treated.
SELFLESS SERVICE – Put the welfare of the Nation, the Army, and your subordinates before your own.
HONOR – Live up to all the Army Values
INTEGRITY – Do what’s right, legally, and morally.
PERSONAL COURAGE – Face fear, danger, or adversity (Physical or Moral).
Conveniently enough if you take the first letter of each of the values it spells out LDRSHIP. And it’s the kind of leadership we talk about when we say Servant Leader.
Supporting from Below, Not Resting Atop
One more thing: note the position of the cornerstone – it can’t do its job up on the roof, over the door, or somewhere safe inside. It is outside, exposed, and on the bottom supporting the rest of the structure.
The shape of the building may change – there may be additions, renovations – but the cornerstone remains in place. There may be a great storm that destroys the building entirely, but you can be sure that even if every other stick is gone, the cornerstone remains, ready for construction to begin anew.
That’s the way your leadership should be: You have to be able to adapt to changing conditions, but the principles that guide your actions and those of your team need to be rock solid, like the cornerstone.
So whether you are a formal leader or an informal one influencing those around you, it’s important to recognize that others are taking their measure from you. Your leadership will guide how they act. Your leadership is their cornerstone.
The question is, what is your leadership based on? What is your code? Once you figure that out, constructing the rest of your building will get a lot easier. Just never violate the code. And whether you are building a storage shed or a cathedral, if you start with integrity, you know it will be built well.