Representing What Right Looks Like

David Perkins is a four star general who spoke at the Center for Positive Organizations. His message was outside conventional assumptions.

He declared that every type of leadership gets results. Toxic leaders and micro-managers, for example, get results. It was because they got results that they were promoted to their present level. Someone believed that, based on their past performance, they would deliver in their new job.

Perkins indicated that it is not surprising that there are so many toxic leaders and micro-managers. The culture with its emphasis on grade point averages, standard scores, and merit evaluations, teaches, “It is all about you.” In organizations we expect leaders to be self-interested.

Perkins said that in certain settings, particularly large hierarchies that do repetitive work, toxic leaders and micro-managers are able to drive people and produce specified outcomes. The problem is that we live in a world of change where even large hierarchies have to deal with novelty and do things for the first time.

Today every organization including the military has to be a learning organization, and such an organization requires inspired people who trust their leaders and do the right thing at the right time if their leader is present or not.

Perkins believes that you inspire people by serving them. He says that he tries to respond immediately to cries for help. He told of being in a battle zone when one of his senior staff people complained because people were not following hierarchical procedures. They were ignoring him, and going directly to Perkins. The staff person implored Perkins to send people to him first. Perkins replied, “They are not going to you first because they do not see you as adding value. You are not making a positive difference. If you were, they would seek you out.”

The General is serious about nurturing inspirational influence. He told of removing hundreds of senior and middle level officers who were known for being toxic leaders or for being micro-managers. He described meetings with people at every level and teaching the notion. This even extended to drill sergeants.

In explaining the need for inspirational leadership he shared stories of people in battle, including people who were badly wounded and completely isolated. In each case they needed to make their own decisions. Making the right decision required trust in their leaders, in their peers and in their mission. Such people have to be inspired by their leader before a crisis comes. He said, “By the time a man has two bullets in him and he is required to continue to make key decisions, if he has not already been inspired, it is too late.”

General Perkins then shared experiences of reuniting with people who served under him years before. Often they recall their most meaningful experiences. One of the most consistent themes, is “I remember what you said and did twenty years ago when we were in trouble.”

He told of a man who was recently promoted to command a battalion. He wrote and said, “When I was in your unit, I watched everything you did and I wrote it down. When I got promoted I went back and read it all. I am going to try to do what I saw you do.”

Perkins told us a leader is the center of attentional gravity — in tough times the focus is on the leader. “People are keeping book on you. You must represent what right looks like. If they are inspired by you, they may become you.”

Notice the link between morality and inspiration. Perkins is saying that leadership is about modeling the courage to do the right thing. When conscience triumphs over fear, we represent what is right. Doing what is right when it is hard to do, is what inspires.

General Perkins said it takes an extensive period to build a positive culture, but in times of difficulty are when you have your most impact. You show who you really are when you are under the greatest stress and everyone is watching and taking note. That is when your influence is the highest.

He closed with this thought. “On your worst days is when you need to be most positive.”


  • How do toxic leaders get results?
  • What kind of commitment is necessary to fire all the toxic leaders?
  • What is necessary to be genuinely positive on your worst days?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


2 thoughts on “Representing What Right Looks Like

  1. This is so true on so many levels. As I have a low position right now, I see how much of an influence a ‘positive’ leader is compared to a ‘negative’ one. All leaders need to examine themselves, along with employees, to become the best and most productive force in their company.

    Liked by 1 person

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