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“You never know a line is crooked unless you have a straight one to put next to it.” – Socrates

Throughout my career, I’ve worked for and with many of the industry’s most impressive leaders who took Walmart Inc. to new heights of success. I learned many things from these individuals, but more importantly, as my role increased in scope, I had the privilege of seeing them lead with strength and resilience through some of their toughest career and sometimes life experiences.

What’s their secret? I can’t speak for them personally, but what I observed from an insider’s perspective was their ability to have a strong sense of core values that guided their decisions and behaviors. They each had a strong conscience that guided their actions and behaviors. In addition, they had impeccable judgment to avoid making decisions that crossed the lines of right and wrong.

The Slippery Slope

WorldCom, Enron, and Lehman Brothers are three companies that need no explanation when it comes to the slippery slope. Their choice to accept incremental tolerance and leadership by omission directly resulted in some of the worst ethical crises of our time. These downward spirals didn’t happen overnight, instead, they happened one small choice at a time over the span of years.

I’ve seen how a lack of integrity and courage can threaten any organization. I’ve seen leaders and organizations who let the seemingly small issues slide. This behavior results in a slippery slope caused by a lack of knowing your Bright Lines.

What are Bright Lines?

Have you ever been in a situation that throws you off or doesn’t seem quite right? When facing these situations, you have to start with having a clear understanding of the personal values you hold dear. Like traveling on a highway, it’s important to stay in your lane—not crossing the bright-yellow lines.

Take a step back and look at the situation with a neutral mentality. What will you stand for?
What are the things that deeply motivate you and inspire you to do your best work? What are your nonnegotiables?

I cannot overemphasize the importance of knowing your core values as an individual. Taking time to evaluate and define your central core values and beliefs (not just abiding by your company values alone) will position you for success as you navigate unexpected left turns.

Bright lines are guided by our conscience. Our conscience knows the difference between the morally right and wrong. It is the inner voice that urges us to do the right thing. It tries to restrain us from doing what we know to be wrong. Our conscience impacts our attitude, conduct and behavior.

It’s also important to note that Bright Lines are not just about having core values – they’re the ability to actively see a pattern before anyone else and act accordingly. These values are not just reserved for the C-suite, but for leaders of all experience levels. And, they’re crucial for making the hard-right decisions that help your company succeed.

So why do Bright Lines matter? Here are three reasons.

They give you clarity when you’re in the midst of intense pressure.

We all know that the workplace will never be void of fires to put out. Bright Lines allow you to understand where you stand at the forefront so you don’t have to figure it out while you’re in the middle of a crisis. They are your ‘True North’ in the middle of intense controversy.

They hold you accountable to your own personal standards.

Bright Lines have to be personal values that are true to you – not just words you see on a company wall. We often hear the phrase posed, “How do they sleep at night?” when questioning the behavior of various leaders. When you establish for yourself what you know to be the lines of right and wrong, you will have a stronger conscience that guides your decision-making. You’ll be able to better recognize the small voice in your head saying ‘danger, danger’ before you put it to rest and letting the seemingly small things slide.

They help you see the patterns of a big crisis ahead of time.

You can’t just recognize a problem. You have to take action and resolve it before it becomes an issue. Take some time to learn from leaders who failed to know their Bright Lines – learn from their mistakes and find ways to implement a stronger behavior model for your own team or organization. When you do this, you can act swiftly to call out the small ‘red flag’ behavior before it turns into a crisis. This requires courage and the ability to act even when the pressure is surreal.

Defining your Bright Lines is not always easy and can take time to develop. In all my years of leadership, the four values that I hold most dear have only grown stronger.

When you are convicted by your core values, you change as a leader, from someone who wants to be the best in their space, to someone who wants to see everyone be the best. Not only will your life change as a leader, but the lives of everyone you interact with will change as well.

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