When deciding to walk a more spiritual life path, few of us will find that we can do it completely alone. It is natural to look toward individuals who have blazed a trail ahead of us, relying on their guidance and support as we construct a new way of life for ourselves. Yet it is not always easy to ensure that you are not falling for a wolf in sheep’s clothing when determining how to model these new facets of your life. Inevitably, some people will stand out as exceptional leaders or coaches, due to a consistency in their personal standards and the way in which they carry themselves. The most inspiring among them almost always conducted themselves like leaders in private first, prior to earning the trust and respect of the public. I’ve personally found the following characteristics to be of supreme value in identifying such advisors:
I. They are devoid of any significant hypocritical, or otherwise manipulative, tendencies. These are the people who always practice what they preach, to the best of their ability. You won’t often find them holding some people up to a different set of moral standards than others. Nor will you hear them making excuses for the behavior of certain people when they would not ordinarily make such excuses for others. Although they have opinions just like anyone else, they are also not prone to conflating opinions with facts, even in cases where it would benefit them. It is well understood that this would undermine their position as an unbiased authority in matters of debate, by making them more susceptible to hypocrisy. This is a key distinguishing factor between leaders with integrity and those who seek to use their social power to manipulate others. II. They never expect more out of others than they expect out of themselves. Even while upholding the toughest of standards for their followers, a respectable leader will always be their own harshest judge or critic. This is because they understand the social responsibilities with which they have been entrusted. As such, they have a tendency to lead more by example than by words alone. By not expecting more out of others than they expect out of themselves, these individuals also typically present as more empathetic than the general population. They understand how difficult it is to stay on course with our goals and aspirations while maneuvering the distractions of this human existence. After all, if someone is mature enough to lecture another person on the right thing to do, then by definition that person also knows the right thing to do. We should therefore be able to expect them to act accordingly. It is wise to be wary of any advisor who makes more excuses for their own behavior than for the behavior of others. III. They invite (and even encourage) others to question their teachings. They are open and honest when they don’t know all the answers. In fact, these leaders often go to great lengths to utilize their own deficiencies in knowledge to inspire others to adopt an attitude of perpetual openness to learning. Perhaps just as important is the tendency for such individuals to readily admit when they are wrong, or at the very least to display understanding and acceptance of their wrongness through changed behavior. They also understand that total integration of any teaching cannot occur without the allowance of the critical evaluation stage by their students or followers. To that effect, it is not regarded by them as insulting when followers engage in respectful interrogation of their teachings. In fact, to a mature leader this is viewed as a healthy and natural progression of the learning process.
IV. They are always authentic, even if that means they don’t always win. Leaders with integrity are not concerned with placating bullies in order to secure a win, whether that win comes in the form of monetary gains or a boost in their social standing. While it is not necessary for them to be overly vocal about their beliefs and values, the critical distinction here is that their values are not for sale. They call it like they see it, whenever the circumstance calls for such direct honesty. For them, monetary or professional advancements are a distant second compared to the respect of their peers and followers. These are the people who will always value truth over “playing the game”, even if it costs them fame, followers, or financial gain. As such, these people are not easily intimidated into abandoning their values and beliefs due to the threat of professional or social ruin. Their core values remain steady despite any popularity pressures to which they might be subjected. V. They take responsibility for their own life choices. These individuals do not claim to be perfect, but their actions over time display a clear commitment to positive spiritual evolution. In fact, in many cases the best leaders are so effective precisely because they are an imperfect person with a unique perspective to offer, due to having braved the challenge of learning from their own mistakes. They are honest about their weaknesses and flaws, inspiring us all by showing compassion for themselves as they would for others, while at the same time not making excuses for their faults. VI. It’s never personal. A true leader knows how to put aside their own jealousies or insecurities in order to effectively mentor others. They are masters at “checking their egos at the door”. Even when faced with a situation in which a student or follower must be corrected, they are skillful at condemning the behavior and not the person. A pupil of such a person never walks away feeling as though they have been unfairly singled out for reasons other than those explicitly stated by the mentor. Just as they are able to criticize in a loving and unbiased way, they are also able to view the successes of their followers objectively. You will not find these people attempting to limit the amount of success or spotlight that one of their students receives. Rather than viewing the triumphs of a protegee as competition, they take pride in having been a part of the process that allowed such accomplishments to occur.
Ultimately, the presence of integrity is not defined by what one has to do, but rather by what one chooses to do. Keep in mind that it is not enough for a leader to justify their actions by only what they are “required” to do, legally or otherwise; they must also prove to followers that to the best of their ability they will choose to do what is good and necessary in any given situation, even when there is no such requirement. These are the leaders worth following.