The Magazine of Corporate Responsibility

Taking Time to Reflect on the Value of Leadership

by Gael O'Brien

Do you also find that taking time-out for leadership reflection falls victim to whichever problem has the loudest voice? It is ironic. Our leadership is the ultimate expression of our humanity. Without it our competence has little impact. So in the spirit of planning for 2016, here are some ideas to support a time-out for reflection and leadership effectiveness.

Leadership_IS_000004328001XSmall_CROP2At the core of more leadership effectiveness is the ability to understand our impact on people (in addition to events) and constructively developing it to deepen connection to others. That connection fuels the reason people follow leaders (beyond the fact that they control salaries and advancement opportunities). It is also a driver in ethical or unethical behavior as many 2015 headlines about leadership and culture problems demonstrate.

In evaluating where to strengthen our leadership, it is easier to start where feedback from a boss, peer or direct report has spotlighted gaps. In the absence of that, or positive feedback beyond “good job,” asking the following question of direct reports and others offers useful insight: “What would you like to see more of or less of from me in the coming year to support you in your work?”

If asking that question feels like unnecessarily “rocking the boat” or adding to your overload, one resource to alleviate anxiety is taking a look at Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, coauthors of Difficult Conversations. The book offers a side benefit of helping bosses give feedback more effectively as well as take it themselves.

Framing the more of/less of question is part of leading by example. It creates a context of wanting to foster a climate where the best outcomes are created for the employee, the company and all stakeholders. The question sends a message that good leadership requires vulnerability in service of continuous growth. Not just the boss’s growth, as employees will see later if you share during their performance reviews what you would like to see more or less of from each of them. Asking the question recognizes the relationship isn’t just transactional. It shows that you see the employee holistically, recognizing emotional as well as professional needs in the job.

In a November interview on her creativity research, Harvard Business School  Professor Theresa Amabile included in her discussion about the elements in a high performing work culture, the huge difference made when employees feel recognized as human beings and feel emotionally supported.

We know that the real or perceived absence of the human element in a  workplace makes headlines,  as Amazon saw last summer. It turns a company and its leaders into a cautionary tale.

If a work environment’s focus in only on the product, the people making it likely have a more distant relationship with bosses. If it feels unsafe to admit a mistake or risk exposure by getting broad-based help to correct it, silence becomes a shield. And the resulting ethical problems can torpedo a company’s success. How leaders at Volkswagen, for example, recover from the emission scandal will have a lot to do internally with how they reshape a work climate. Research by Amabile and others may offer a useful benchmark.

How we go about making profits can also dehumanize work. Leaders’ connection to customers erodes in proportion to the focus on profits in the short-term. The 2007/2008 financial crisis and ongoing ethical scandals like Volkswagen’s debunk the myth of putting customers first. Decisions that pit company interest against customer interest render customers faceless. A human connection is broken. The result is disrespect, a violation of trust and unethical behavior. In December, JP MorganChase became the latest example. The company admitted wrongdoing  for improperly steering clients to its own funds that often gave the banks higher fees and not disclosing to clients the conflicts.

There is urgent work ahead by all of us to understand better how to balance short- and long-term focus and make decisions that treat customers with dignity. It is at the heart of leaders earning the right to be followed, employees feeling that what they do matters and customers not being put at risk.

In introducing a program on “Dignity, Wisdom & Tomorrow’s Ethical Business Leaders” at Bentley University last month, W. Michael Hoffman, Executive Director of the Center for Business Ethics, spoke of the potential of business to honor humanity. In his introduction of speakers Hoffman, also the Hieken Professor of Business and Professional Ethics, said:

“If forty years of relentless study of business ethics has shown us anything, it is that when one narrows one’s view of business as a simple pursuit of profits, corruption and danger follow….And, by contrast, when business is infused with ideas that honor humanity, such as wisdom and dignity, the capacity of business to contribute to social flourishing is colossal and a testimony to human genius.”

Working toward that creates a legacy where leaders and others flourish.

Gael O'Brien_2012_CropGael O’Brien, a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, is a consultant, executive coach, and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes the The Week in Ethics and is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine.

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