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Leading with spine

Spine is more than just a backbone. It's an acronym that spells out how to be a good leader. John Baldoni explains.

4 min read


baldoni leading with spine

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One of the criticisms that we often hear, especially about elected officials, is that they “lack spine.” This criticism is not unique to politicians. Most of us have worked with people who fit that description — people who are not “leading with spine.”

What does it mean to lack spine? It means you will do whatever is necessary to keep your job.  A lack of spine is a reflection of willful ambiguity. Organized crime runs on this principle. You will lie, cheat, steal or worse to keep yourself close to the center of power. You want the big boss to like you.

Lack of spine is evidence of an environment where disloyalty is the ultimate crime. Allegiance to the boss matters most. Such practices erode culture and lead to dysfunction and toxicity. Eventually, such cultures collapse but not before they wreak pain and havoc.

Stiffening the spine

The cure for lack of spine is a backbone — the courage to live up to standards that matter for the betterment of others. One leader who personified spine was Abraham Lincoln, who acted with strength, resolve and moral authority to preserve the union. But, before we explore his example, let’s define our terms in the form of this handy acronym: SPINE.

Strength is standing up for what you believe and acting on those beliefs. “Moral authority,” wrote Stephen Covey, “comes from following universal and timeless principles like honesty, integrity, treating people with respect.”

Principle is rooted in purpose. What you believe and why you believe it. “To see what is right and not to do it is want of courage, or of principle,” said Confucius. Principle becomes the very marrow of the spine. It gives it the ability to remain upright in the face of adversity.

Integrity is the expression of ethical behavior. Telling the truth and holding oneself accountable is fundamental to behaving with honor, living not just for oneself but for the good of others.

Nurture is the caring side of leadership. It means investing yourself in the development of others. Another form of nurturing is coaching, finding ways to guide and at the same time challenging them to do their best.

Energy is what is necessary to catalyze the organization. If the organization is dead in the water, in time you do nothing but drift. Leaders need to invest themselves in creating opportunities for others. That requires exertion.

Not perfection

SPINE, as an acronym, is what we expect of our leaders. Leading with spine creates an expectation of focusing on doing what is right to achieve results that improve the whole.

A leader with spine may not always exert it. Call it a slipped disk. Yet they recognize their errors and acknowledge them. They apologize to those they have hurt. Even better, they make amends.

SPINE as an acronym is not intended to be comprehensive. It only touches on other attributes, such as wisdom — the type that comes from observation and experience. Wise leaders also know their limitations, what they can and cannot do, and therefore need help. Smart leaders are humble in their approach; they act with intention and kindness. 

Moral Abraham

Perhaps there is no more outstanding example of a kind leader than Abraham Lincoln. As John Avlon writes so eloquently in Lincoln and the Fight for Peace, Lincoln knew that winning the Civil War was step one. After that, winning the peace would be the greater triumph. That would require him to exert fortitude (and, yes, spine) as he had done through the war. 

Lincoln traveled to Richmond, Va., in the same week of his assassination. He met with Confederate officials and officers. And he toured the hospitals to meet Yankee soldiers and Rebel soldiers too. Lincoln sought ways to turn animosities that led to rebellion into a harmony that could lead to peace.

Again and again, accounts of these visits demonstrate the kindness and, by extension, the compassion Lincoln exuded. The tragedy is that his death ended the hopes for lasting peace, the ramifications for which we suffer today.

Leading with spine is rooted in the moral authority we exert to act upon the “better angels of our nature.”

John Baldoni is a member of 100 coaches and is a leadership keynote presenter. He has been recognized as a top 20 leadership expert by Global Gurus, a list he has been on since 2007. He is also ranked as a Global 100 Leader and Top 50 Leadership Expert by Inc. John, the author of 15 books, has a leadership resource website.


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