Articles

Legitimate Leadership & Ethical Leadership

December 05, 2016 - By Wendy Lambourne, Director, MA Industrial and Organisation Psychology Registered Psychologist with SA Medical & Dental Council

Legitimate Leadership is, first and foremost, an ethical framework which argues for values rather than needs driven behaviour by all those at work, but particularly by those in leadership roles.

WHAT DOES BEING ETHICAL MEAN?

Being ethical means to act consistently with the value (like honesty) which is operative in any given situation.  It means to do the right thing even if it does not appear to be the most expedient or workable thing to do at the time.

In any situation leaders’ actions can be informed by only one of two things – by their needs or by their values.  When leaders act on the basis of their needs they are essentially putting their self interest first.  When they behave on the basis of the value which is operative in the situation they are acting for reasons higher than self interest.  They are concerned with doing what is right rather than with what is expedient.

This only happens when leaders deliberately and consciously CHOOSE to put their self interest second.  When they elect to suspend their own agenda for what is right.

WHY DOES BEING VALUES RATHER THAN NEEDS DRIVEN AS A LEADER MATTER?

There are two reasons why being values rather than needs driven is of paramount importance to the leadership of any enterprise.

Firstly there is a relationship between being values vs needs driven and TRUST IN MANAGEMENT.  When management compromises on what is the right thing to do in order to confirm their own interests this becomes immediately apparent to their people.  They instantly conclude that management is self serving and as such can’t be trusted.

Conversely, when management contradicts their self interest in order do the right thing, they are experienced as sincere.

Their people see them as values, rather than needs driven, and therefore trust them.

Every time a leader acts appropriately trust in the individual leader, and the leadership collectively, increases an increment.  Every time the opposite is true trust decreases commensurately.

Secondly the choices that leaders make, to be values rather than needs driven or the opposite, sets the EXAMPLE for those down the line to follow.  Organisations are ultimately a reflection of those at the top of the organisation.  When those at the top do the right thing, those down the line follow suit.  When those at the top pursue their own interests they cultivate the conditions whereby everybody is in it for themselves and, inevitably, values are compromised. 

HOW DO LEADERS KNOW THAT THEY ARE PERCEIVED TO BE VALUES OR NEEDS DRIVEN?

The degree to which the management of an enterprise is seen to be values driven is the degree to which management is trusted and hence has LEGITIMACY in the eyes of their people.

When those in authority are accepted their visibility outside the Boardroom is welcomed.  Employees take their concerns to them rather than to their employee representative, the Human Resource function or an anonymous ethics hotline.  They abide by management decisions and if disciplinary action is taken do not rail against it.  They will do what is expected of them and much more.

The degree to which the authority which is exercised is not accepted, on the other hand, is reflected in how much resistance there is by employees to that authority.  The ‘resistance’ may be covert or overt.  If resistance exists in whatever form, other than by a disaffected minority, there is leadership work to be done.

HOW DO YOU CULTIVATE LEADERS WHO ARE VALUES RATHER THAN NEEDS DRIVEN, WHO ACT APPROPRIATELY AND WHO DO THE RIGHT THING?

For leaders to act appropriately and do the right thing in any situation requires them to see what the appropriate thing to do is and then to behave accordingly.  Understanding what the right thing to do in the situation is an ABILITY issue.  Actually doing the right thing, however, is a matter of the WILL.

Sometimes what the right thing to do is, is blindingly obvious.  In many instances, however, this is not the case.  There are situations in the work context, and more broadly in life, which are complex and ambiguous.  These situations are ones for which making the right call requires both insight and understanding.

Exercising good JUDGEMENT in these situations is fortunately a skill which can be learned.  From experience leaders can develop the skill to see what is appropriate in different situations by applying their minds to typical situations which arise in their organisation.  When situations arise they need to engage in vigorous debate with other leaders before agreeing on what the right thing to do is.  With enough practice it is possible for leaders in an organisation to calibrate their views and become aligned with each other in terms of the moral decisions facing them.

There is no recipe for the right thing to do in every situation.  Moral decisions call for judgement, the answer does not descend like tablets of stone from on high.  But once leaders are calibrated, and hence of common mind, then and only then are they seen to have integrity.

Ultimately however leaders will only actually do the right thing when they deliberately and consciously choose to do so.  Our default position is to act on our needs.  We duck, for example when the gun goes off!   Contradicting a need to do the right thing is in fact a matter of the will.

What enable leaders to put their values before their need is therefore the following:

Firstly that the organisation’s values are personified by those at the very top of the organisation.

When those at the top evidence the company’s values in their daily behaviour and practice they exponentially increase the likelihood of the values being embodied by others.  In the words of St. Francis of Assisi “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary use words.”

Secondly that people are held accountable for living the values. In other words there are positive consequences for those who act consistently with the organisation’s values and negative consequences for those who do not.  People who deliberately contravene the organisation’s values are not only censured but disciplined, up to and including dismissal, for doing so.  This is the case even if the results are being achieved.

Unless there are CONSEQUENCES, both positive and negative, values driven behaviour never takes precedence over expediency in organisations no matter how many values workshops people attend.

Wendy Lambourne
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