You wouldn’t be a normal floor covering store manager if you didn’t worry — and often — about the challenges that threaten your company’s profits and growth. As an owner-manager, Sunday evenings were my worst worry times. Do you, too, during your worry times, ask yourself, “How solid is our company’s foundation?”

When managing my floor covering store, I felt responsible for the company’s foundation. I wanted a strong one for my employees and customers — one that would be durable enough to stand the tests of time.

But, I found that time and reality inevitably wear down even the most solid foundation. My character strengths and flaws showed up in my company’s foundation. As the Thais say, “A fish stinks from the head down.” That’s more responsibility than I had recognized when I first opened my store.

I soon realized that I didn’t even know what a company foundation was made of, let alone how to reinforce it. Now, after decades of experience and research into the hallmarks of effective leadership, I think I’ve found some answers.

The foundation of any company reflects the founder's chatacter

In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.” Fortunately and unfortunately, a company’s foundation can be no deeper or sturdier than the characters of its founders and managers.

Research and experience teach us the companies that best endure stress have foundations composed of trust. You may ask, “Trust? That’s it?” Yes, I believe trust is the essence of an invincible foundation.

Note well that nothing less than the employees’ and customers’ sincere and voluntary trust of an enterprise’s leadership will sustain a company through rough periods. In companies built to last, the leaders are simply trustworthy.

Trust shouldn’t be your problem, right? We all consider ourselves trustworthy. However, I would remind you that, on this particular issue, our personal opinions count for nothing. The ultimate test of our foundations is how others feel about us.

So, consult the opinions of employees and customers. It’s sometimes difficult to get candid answers, so you should promise anonymity and freedom from reprisal. In seminar materials my consulting firm has developed, we suggest an employee questionnaire to elicit truth and frankness. Great companies make it a habit to survey their people for satisfaction and performance of company leadership.

How to extend your trustworthiness is easier when you think about exemplary leaders whom you’ve trusted. What characteristics did they radiate? I would suggest that they radiated the two components of trust: integrity and honesty.

The precise meaning of “integrity” is often argued, because people think of it in two different senses. One is internal consistency. The other is adherence to sound external principles.

In the first sense, we say a leader has integrity when there’s absolute consistency between what she says and what she does. The leader’s every word and action correspond to what the leader really thinks, feels and believes. There is no hypocrisy; the leader is not mentally or philosophically conflicted. “I will do exactly what I say I will do, when I say I will do it. If I change my mind, I will tell you well in advance, so you will not be harmed by my actions.” This is called congruency.

The second meaning of integrity relates to the leader’s unfailing conformity to good values and principles. A man has integrity, we say, when he makes a commitment — uncompromising, irrevocable and unconditional — to follow certain principles. And he follows through on his commitments without fail.

Between those two meanings lies some opposition. The first meaning is self-centered and the other meaning is principle-centered. (Another of life’s paradoxes. I’ve found that the key to inspiring leadership is the ability to finesse the contraries or, in other words, the ability to reconcile two opposites and generate maximum benefit from both.)

In light of these two definitions of integrity, how do you rate your consistency and commitment? Ask yourself the tougher question: How do my employees and customers rate me?

The other element of trust is full honesty — always telling the truth and never deceiving. Managers who live, talk and walk with integrity find that they don’t need to lie. Nor do they need to cover up truth, such as by keeping silent. Effective leaders can handle the truth, can admit their mistakes, and can change for the better next time. However, that requires relentless courage!

Whenever you or I act on our principles in a less-than consistent and congruent manner, whenever we are less than completely honest, our foundation cracks. When the foundation cracks, the bearing walls slip and the roof tilts.

In speaking of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, columnist Walter Lippman said, “The genius of a good leader is to leave behind him a situation which common sense, without the grace of genius, can deal with successfully.”

I want to build an organization which others can deal with successfully when they have no more, nor less, than common sense. I hope you’ll consider adopting the goal of becoming the kind of leader Lippman described.

“The final test of a leader,” Lippman added, “is that he leaves behind him in other men the conviction and the will to carry on.”

Indeed, the leader’s greatest challenge lies in influencing other people to build within themselves the conviction and the will to carry on your organization. Happily, this comes about almost naturally when we settle for nothing less than integrity and honesty, which makes us trustworthy in others’ eyes.