by Gael O’Brien 

What makes a leader is a question without an expiration date. I confess, I’m obsessed with the question.

W. Michael Hoffman

Never more so than the last few weeks since the sudden death of a treasured pioneer W. Michael Hoffman. With quiet humility, he did more than anyone has to shape and advance the field of business ethics globally, bringing along faculty members, academic administrators, business executives, government officials, foundation executives and so many others. When someone who has had such a deep impact on the work of thousands of people in his 40-some-year career suddenly isn’t there anymore, the legacy of his leadership offers some comfort. Whether you knew him or didn’t, how he accomplished what he did in service of both business and ethics might inspire more leaders to shape their own possibility.

It is a legacy that provides a roadmap to leadership that matters. In 2016, I wrote a column here on the 40th anniversary of the W. Michael Hoffman Center for Business Ethics (HCBE) at Bentley University. I loved the story Mike told that night about how the National Endowment for the Humanities turned down his grant application in 1975 to start the center, telling him — when he pressed for information — that they hadn’t heard of business ethics. After meeting with endowment officials to discuss the relevance of integrating business with ethics, the center received a grant to launch in 1976. As Mike evolved the center and figured out with his team the most successful approaches to developing curriculum, involving the business community and creating an infrastructure to support all the constituencies, he shared what he was doing so others could adapt or adopt ideas to succeed in their environments.

What makes a leader is so much more than a resume of credentials. It is the heart and soul that creates enduring relationships, inspires and brings out the best in others. Mike embodied the attributes of emotional intelligence (self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills) decades before psychologist Daniel Goleman identified them in his famous 1995 article on leadership. To go deeper into what makes a leader, I asked an ethics center head, a former ethics officer and a public sector executive turned academic for their thoughts on how they experienced Mike’s leadership.

Jane Roeder, Interim Director of the Ukleja Center for Ethical Leadership at California State University Long Beach said in a phone conversation that the Ukleja Center turned to the HCBE as a global benchmark. “Mike Hoffman was like the John Wooden of business ethics,” she said. “His vision, integrity and passion for bringing out the best in people and business sparked the creation of university centers globally.”

Mike created an infrastructure to support HCBE’s mission (inspire ethical leadership, promote ethical collaboration, enrich ethical knowledge and connect ethical thought and action) by inventing what didn’t then exist. He co-founded the Ethics Officer Association (now the Ethics & Compliance Initiative) and the Society for Business Ethics, as well as created networks to develop and share information (international conferences, workshops, CEO lecture series, research forums, visiting scholars programs and an executive fellows program which brings corporate ethics officers and practitioners into the life of the center).

Leon Goldman, chairman of HCBE’s Kallman Executive Fellows, wrote in an email exchange that Mike’s “career was devoted not only to telling students and business leaders that living a values-based life can be done, but to showing them by his actions and the work of the center that such a business career is both possible and highly successful.” Goldman, formerly Associate Medical Director and Privacy Officer at Kyruus, a data management company, continued: “Through the Verizon- and Raytheon-sponsored lecture series, he exposed students, faculty and thousands of business leaders and members of the public to examples of highly successful leaders whose business life was guided by values and commitment to an ethical business culture.”

I asked Arthur Shacklock from Queensland Australia, who’d known Mike for the past 20 years, how he’d describe Mike’s impact. “The influence of Mike Hoffman’s leadership will continue in his absence,” wrote Shacklock, “because his values, inspiration, optimism, drive, enthusiasm and dedication have been so well embedded into the psyche of those of us who share his vision.” Shacklock is a former senior public sector executive, academic and now adjunct Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Ethics, Governance and Law at Griffith Law School, Griffith University. “Mike inspired us to greater achievements” Shacklock continued, by the standards he set for himself, his warmth, humility, empathy and the deep respect he accorded others.”  Shacklock added: “…. Mike’s leadership lessons will endure to inspire others now and into the future.”

For all the strides made in integrating ethics into business education and business decisions that can be attributed to Mike, and to so many others in universities and companies, there is a very long road ahead.

And the enduring question that Mike Hoffman’s life and legacy inspire gets to the heart of what makes a leader: what will we require of ourselves and be willing to help develop in others to create leadership that truly matters?

Gael O’Brien, a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, is an executive coach and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes The Week in Ethics, is a Kallman Executive Fellow, Hoffman Center for Business Ethics, Bentley University and Senior Fellow for Social Innovation at the Lewis Institute, Babson College.