The deep divisions present in our country at this time seem to constitute a leadership crisis. Some Americans are beginning to question the viability of democracy itself.
I share the view expressed in the famous quotation attributed to Churchill that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Lincoln’s view that American democracy is an “experiment” is also a view I share—there is no guarantee that it will work out in the long run. Without good leadership it will surely not.
Similar questions are raised about the viability and justice of free market capitalism, a system that has brought extraordinary economic benefits and freedoms to billions around the world.
This calls for earnest self-examination for those of us in the leadership development and executive coaching business. The same applies to other business leaders. One of their key responsibilities is the mentoring of future leaders as well. So how is the current crisis relevant to what we do? In just this way: businesses and corporations form the core defining organizations of U.S. culture. How they are led will not only determine the future of our economic system. It eventually is reflected in the chambers and offices of government.
It is ironic that while we hear constant claims of a need for better leadership in our country, we are awash in a surplus of leadership advice. You could easily spend a couple of hours every day just reading new postings on LinkedIn about how to be a better leader. Seminars and webinars on the subject have become a commodity. Business books, often of questionable value, proliferate like uncontrolled weeds. Others with merit simply rehash what has been said hundreds of times before.
Remember the famous line from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner? “Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.” Has our national obsession with leadership development turned this resource into virtual salt water for the mind and spirit? It fails to solve the problem, and as it is consumed in quantity, things seem to become worse.
Most leadership development focuses on pleasing your boss, pleasing your peers, pleasing your employees, and pleasing your customers. Future—and current leaders—are thus encouraged above all to defer to and accommodate the opinions and preferences of others, all to advance their own careers. Such people used to be referred to as opportunists, flatterers, sycophants, and even toadies or creeps, but certainly not as leaders. Since Congress as of January 2021 has about a 25% public approval rating, https://www.statista.com/statistics/207579/public-approval-rating-of-the-us-congress/ ,would it be fair to say that these words sum up how most Americans see most of their elected officials, on both sides of the aisle? (In the previous month, the rating was 15%).
Five things, which all of us in leadership development need to keep constantly in mind, are needed for sound leadership:
- A foundation in principles, political, economic, and/or religious, that transcend self-interest. Not only is this compatible with free market capitalism, but the latter cannot exist without the trust and goodwill that are the result of civic virtues. In fact, a commitment to free market capitalism is an example of having a foundation in principles. It carries with it the responsibility at a minimum not to undermine that system through unethical practices.
- Moral standards for advancing those principles. Some things are obligatory, such as treating all people with respect and fairness, and others are forbidden, including slander, theft, fraud, etc. These may seem obvious, but then why are they so often violated? Milton Friedman made the same point in his famous and often misinterpreted article “The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits.” Business must operate, he said, “while conforming to the basic rules of the society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom” and without “deception or fraud.” https://www.nytimes.com/1970/09/13/archives/a-friedman-doctrine-the-social-responsibility-of-business-is-to.html. Education in moral reasoning is also essential as a preparation for facing tough decisions when competing moral values are in conflict.
- Courage. This is necessary to resist the inevitable pressure to sacrifice principles and standards, and to withstand the ridicule and contempt that will be aimed at those who do not compromise. Or the pressure just to stay quiet when you know you should speak up. Military leadership education and training successfully nurtures the growth of one kind of courage. Where is parallel training present in executive development?
- Willingness to sacrifice self and career for your principles. If you are not willing to make costly sacrifices for your principles, they are not really your principles at all. They are at most expedient tools to be discarded when they no longer serve your self-interest. George Washington declined the offer to be crowned king at the end of the Revolutionary War. He did so out of his commitment to principles of democratic government for which he led the Continental Army. Napoleon was the opposite of Washington. Following the execution of King Louis XVI, the reign of terror, and some military victories, he crowned himself emperor. He thereby showed the shallowness of his commitment to the principles of the French revolution. The recently deceased George Shultz, who served two U.S. presidents in cabinet positions, summed up well a principled stance: “It’s a great mistake to want the job too much, because then you do things to keep the job that you probably wouldn’t do otherwise.” (https://www.wsj.com/articles/george-shultz-had-a-wise-and-discerning-heart-11612999062)
- Practical wisdom and skill in advancing one’s principles. This is where training in emotional intelligence, effective communication, team engagement, negotiation, etc., comes in. These are the areas in which most of us in executive development spends most of our time. Financial and technical skills are included here too.
If we as developers of executives focus only on #5, then we need to ask what our own fundamental principles are. Are we promoting the leadership needed for an advanced capitalist democracy to thrive? Or are we are merely promoting sophisticated careerism and opportunism? The neglect of the first four is not a neutral position. Instead, it communicates tacitly that they are not worthy of serious attention in your view.
So, if you are a business leader, what can you do next?
First, if you do not have a corporate statement of vision and values, develop one. Once you have one, bring it alive. How?
On a regular basis, ask your top team to discuss the following questions:
- How, when, and where are we living out our vision and values?
- How, when, and where are we failing to live up to them?
- How clear and adequate and relevant are our statements of vision and values to us and to the rest of the company?
- What standards do we want our customers to judge us by?
- How can we do better?
When ready to entertain perhaps more candid feedback, ask your employees similar questions. Same goes for your customers. (Boy, would I like the chance to do this for AT&T!)
Lastly, find a book on business or leadership values that is both inspiring and applicable to your organization, but not the usual marketing, sales, team building and strategy stuff. Then buy copies for your team to discuss with you, but only after you have read it first!
If you would like help on any of the above, give me a call. An exploratory discussion will not cost you anything but the time.