Managing partners are made, nor born, and one has to wonder—well, I have to wonder, anyway—what distinguishes the competent from the incompetent, and the great from the good.

I have a theory as to where it starts, what at least one indispensable criterion is, and now, fortunately, you don’t have to just take my word for it. The famous A.G. Lafley (once and current CEO of Procter & Gamble) and Roger Martin, dean and professor of strategic management at the under-appreciated Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, wrote a piece this summer that seems to validate my theory. Booz Allen published it in their Strategy & Business, and it’s called “Leading with Integrity.”

“Integrity” is most commonly thought of as honorable or virtuous behavior, and it sure is, but I (and Lafley and Martin) have something else in mind; it’s intellectual integrity. In a nutshell:

  • honesty
  • discipline
  • clarity
  • and consistency

in intellectual decision-making so that one’s arc of decisions cohere as a whole and reinforce one another.

You may be thinking this should be obvious but so are “lose weight” and “stop smoking.” The deveil is in the doing. And often you can’t really tell how a new managing partner will measure up until they face their first real test.

What do I mean by a “test?”

True testing experiences are critical decisions made not only under uncertainty—uncertainty is a ubiquitous affliction of humanity—but where the stakes are high, it’s in service of a critical strategic goal, there’s no fully satisfactory option, and every possible choice demands a trade-off.

You want to equivocate, to hedge your bets, to procrastinate “until we know more,” to try to keep all options open. But you can’d do everything and be everywhere at once unless you’re unserious about succeeding.

We’ve seen a lack of intellectual integrity, and its consequences, in many settings: in large and small businesses, startups, nonprofits, private equity turnarounds, and government agencies. Conversely, we’ve seen integrity—on the part of a CEO or other executive leader—ripple out and deeply affect the culture of an organization. When a leader has intellectual integrity, the people of the enterprise are less likely to be distracted by irrelevant considerations, and more likely to keep focused on the indicators that matter most: those related to customers and competitors. They are more likely to maintain a long-term view when making their decisions, and are less susceptible to the dangers of short-term decisions driven by quarterly financial reporting.

Leaders who can’t exercise intellectual integrity find themselves buffeted by a scattering of attention and resources, at the whim of flavor-of-the-month thinking, and vulnerable to parochial special interests and individual groups’ priorities and preferences.

I mentioned “honesty” at the top of the list when we kicked off here for a reason: Too many leaders are rosy-eyed about the actual state of their firm, preferring data that confirms their sunny view and avoiding the hard work of rigorous and disciplined, non-delusional, self-examination.

Lafley and Martin provide an example.

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