Wise leaders consistently and courageously do the ‘right thing’

“Wise leaders consistently and courageously do the ‘right thing’” Ceannas Wise Leadership #2

Doing the ‘right thing’ seems like a simplistic catch-all to describe a central characteristic of wise leadership.

Surely such a subjective definition leaves it open to abuse for those who would seek to justify their behaviour by claiming that they were driven to do the ‘right thing’.

That’s why wise leadership cannot simply depend upon a person authentically living out their own values in their behaviour.

The problem with this fashionable view of leadership, i.e. the ‘authentic leader’, is that it gives a licence to those who would justify morally indefensible behaviour simply on the grounds that they are faithfully living out their values.

Such a definition would have enabled immoral historical figures such as Hitler or Stalin to justify their behaviour by claiming that it authentically conformed to their own personal value system.

The ‘right thing’, then, is much more than simply adhering to your own values.  It’s also so much more than just saying the ‘right thing’.

The ‘right thing’, then, is shorthand for ethical behaviour – whereby the way the person lives and makes decisions are all underpinned by a commitment to honest, fair and principled behaviour.

By way of example the recent VW scandal demonstrates the consequences of leaders failing to act in an ethical manner. The criminal act was the inclusion of a ‘defeat device’ in diesel engines that recognised testing conditions and switched to a less polluting mode. Yet out on the open road this device switched off increasing by 40 times the emission of toxic nitric oxide. The final fine for this breach of trust has been estimated to run to $18 billion.

The initial response from VW was that this was down to the actions of a small number of engineers who had operated independently of the organisation.

However, as it unravelled it could be traced back to a failure in ethical leadership from the very top of the organisation.

At a Board level many of VW’s most senior executives were remunerated on the amount of dividend that was paid out to shareholders.

In order to increase this dividend they realised that they needed to grow their market share in the US. In 2012 the chief executive Martin Winterkorn aggressively announced that VW would overtake Toyota and would achieve global dominance in the car industry. In order to realise this ascendancy VW would target the US fuel-efficient market and increase their sales by 5% of their existing 11 million diesel vehicles sold in the US.

This ambitious performance indicator created a major corporate conundrum, i.e. how to make cars more energy efficient; keep them competitive in terms of price; and make a substantive contribution to environmental safety?

In the immediate release of the story the CEO blamed a small number of engineers who had operated independently.

“No serious and manifest breaches of duty on the part of any serving or former members of the board of management have been established,” Volkswagen statement

However, as it unravelled it became apparent that there existed a ‘groupthink’ in the organisation that led people to take actions, be complicit, or remain silent in order to achieve the higher goal of breaking the US auto market.

All this was a consequence of the ‘ethical tone’ established at the very top of the organisation, which was – despite the rhetoric of environmental safety – one of increasing the shareholder dividend, and in so doing the personal remuneration for senior executives.

Despite Martin Winterkorn claiming that, “I’m not aware of any wrong doing on my part.” he created a culture in the organisation where achievement of corporate goals led to others picking up on that ‘tone’ to the extent that they subverted the regulations.

If ‘ethical leadership’ was at the core of his day-to-day behaviour then it’s unlikely, although not impossible, that others would have felt they were ‘doing the right thing’ to achieve the organisation’s goals.

The wise leader then realises that their own example and behaviour is critical in setting the ethical tone of their organisation, and, such is their commitment to doing ‘the right thing’ that they live that out in a consistent and courageous manner – even if that is sometimes to the detriment of the organisation in the short-term.

Where leaders behave in such a manner then those who follow them are much more likely to be inspired to live up to similar values and be an influence that will last them the rest of their lives.

Do you want to know who you are?

Don’t ask. Act!

Action will delineate and define you.

Thomas Jefferson

The Ceannas features of ‘wise’ leadership:

1. Has a capacity to look at issues from a variety of perspectives;

2. Consistently and courageously do the ‘right thing’;

3. Wise Leaders ‘know’ they don’t know everything;

4. Combines a vision of the future with knowledge of the past;

5. Recognises and understands their own human frailties and personal biases;

6. Can simplify complex and complicated problems and reduce them to their very essence;

7. Travels without the burden of having to prove their wisdom;

8. Balances issues towards the ‘common good’;

9. Sees layers of connections when others see discrete issues;

10. Engages their mind in union with their humanity.

Copyright Ceannas Ltd 2016