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Irma Becerra is president of Marymount University, a comprehensive doctoral-granting university known for its innovative curriculum.
I was having dinner with a friend some years ago when a familiar, not-so-happy-face interrupted our meal: “Dr. Becerra—is that you? You gave me the only B in my MBA.” Afterward, my friend said, “Why don’t you give everyone an A? That way, you avoid this in the future.” It’s sometimes hard to explain the academic world to others, but the fact is that our “currency”—how we reward students and employees—is based on merit and recognition. For example, our currency includes grades, tenure, honorary titles like emeritus (distinguished upon retirement) and others.
In academic organizations, no matter their respective differences in discipline, geography or funding source (public or private), certain universal principles apply, namely:
- Academic freedom gives scholars the right to conduct and publish research and teach without the fear of censorship.
- Academic excellence emphasizes high standards and critical thinking and requires that scholars stay current with the latest developments in their field.
- Academic collaboration refers to the open exchange of knowledge and ideas that build the corpus of what is commonly known.
- Academic integrity and peer reviews involve scholarly work that “stands on the shoulders of others,” and new knowledge that references prior related works.
- Academic objectivity is about evaluating students’ performance without biases or any other conflicts and avoiding any misuse of the perceived power or influence that professors may have in the classroom. This principle also ensures that diversity and inclusion are at the forefront and multiple views are respected.
Principled leadership refers to the fundamental beliefs and values that guide the practices, behaviors and decision-making in an organization. So, what does it mean to be a principled leader versus a courageous or ethical one? It comes down to leaders aligning their values and goals with their organizations. Principled leaders model the behavior they seek to reward in the organization—that is, they “walk the talk.”
Borrowing from the principles of academia, here are five things you can do to become a more principled leader:
1. Encourage communication.
Support a culture of collaboration and open communication within your teams through regular feedback sessions. Actively listen when team members discuss their goals, challenges and progress. An open dialogue will allow you to identify areas for improvement and share best practices, fully engage in these conversations and lead by example regarding receiving and giving feedback.
Cognitive diversity in teams is powerful. Building teams with individuals who challenge the status quo and bring diverse viewpoints can fuel a culture of innovation. Most importantly, instill a culture where missteps are accepted and resolved collaboratively. Lead with humility, acknowledge you may not possess all the answers and embrace input from team members to avoid cognitive entrenchment.
2. Recognize and reward accomplishments.
Always recognize your team members for their hard work and team contributions. Life is challenging today on many fronts, so when your people shine, let them know you greatly appreciate their efforts. The art of acknowledging and rewarding employees takes center stage in the playbook of principled leaders. Always make a point to celebrate a job well done.
Acknowledgment doesn’t always need to be formal, but it must transcend the exchange of pleasantries. Recognition is the currency that spurs motivation, loyalty and a collective sense of achievement among team members. Remember, your people are watching. Take every opportunity to ensure they feel seen and heard.
3. Empower and develop strong teams.
Understand that the success and progress of your organization are heavily reliant on the growth and effectiveness of your teams. Principled leaders know a shared purpose is vital to organizational success.
Actively engage in practices that empower and nurture your teams to create an environment where everyone can thrive and contribute to their full potential. Trust your team members to make decisions and take ownership of their work. Doing so will foster a sense of autonomy and accountability among team members.
Principled leadership calls for being committed to the professional development of teams. Offer training programs, encourage attendance at conferences or promote continuous learning to empower teams. Invest in the development of your people, and your team will keep its focus on growth and organizational excellence.
4. Recognize the value of we versus I.
By emphasizing “we” over “I,” you acknowledge that your organization’s success is a result of the combined contributions of your teams. One of the critical ways principled leaders recognize the value of we is by promoting teamwork and collaboration. Create an environment where individuals work harmoniously, pooling their skills, knowledge and experiences to achieve common goals.
This collaborative spirit fosters innovation as diverse perspectives and ideas come together to tackle complex challenges. Principled leaders encourage collaboration while actively participating in and supporting team efforts, setting an example for others to follow.
Motivate your team members and reinforce that success is a shared endeavor. Doing so can create a culture where everyone feels valued and empowered.
5. Strive for fairness.
Fairness is about equal opportunities and cultivating an environment where everyone has an equitable chance to succeed. Ensure everyone has the support needed to grow and contribute to a positive and productive work environment. Committing to fairness can help you create well-being and it extends beyond policy adherence—it embodies a dedication to upholding your organization’s values.
Contribute to a positive and productive work environment, celebrate diversity and ensure everyone’s unique strengths are recognized. This commitment will build a culture where everyone on your team feels valued and driven to contribute to the success of your organization.
Embrace these principles as pillars to build your organizational culture. If you choose principled leadership, I think you’ll find your team members feel valued, empowered and inspired to contribute to the shared triumphs of your organization.