Monday, 25 June 2012

The Plumb Line


In Jane Austen’s book ‘Pride and Prejudice’, her Mr. Darcy proclaims “…my good opinion, once lost, is lost forever…”

For the inspirational leader there is no such thing as ‘situational ethics’.  That is, right or wrong is not a reflection of the circumstances.  Right is right and wrong is wrong. Truth is not relative.

People on your team must know that there is always a moral compass guiding decisions.  They must know that the response to any situation is not dependent upon who is more senior, or more favoured or more fortunate.  They must know that the situation does not dictate the response but rather the ethical, moral or legal imperative is that which has priority.

Situational ethics are used only by those for whom ‘doing the right thing’ is an optional exercise rather than an obligation.  It is for those who see truth as an inconvenience and a potential obstacle to the achievement of the goal.

Quite apart from disrupting the inspirational leadership model, the fact of the matter is that situational ethics creates a dilemma throughout the organization.

There are no longer any standards that cannot be compromised.  Whether that is dealing with company assets, company finances or company information, where does one draw the line?   When a bribe paid to a foreign nation in order to secure an order and generate business because that is ‘business as usual’ in that country, what’s the issue?  A recent PBS documentary highlighted that much of our current economic malaise associated with the US housing market can be traced back to the practice of derivative trading conducted by major US banks.  The documentary showed that the practice would have violated US law had the banks not sold these financial instruments to European banks and non-bank companies in the US.  The bottom line was that the US banks found a way around the law and in doing so they created a market for mortgages where non would have otherwise existed.  Situational ethics in action!

The list is endless when everyone gets to interpret truth for themselves.  No definitions are valid any longer.  If I see performance one way and you see it differently, who is right.  Or for that matter, is there a ‘wrong’ any more.

Leaders set the standard.  And the standard must be unambiguous.

Expectations must be codified.  And they must be applicable across all levels of the organization.  As we saw with the issue of accountability, there can be no exceptions.  Too many people are impacted by the failure to abide by the standards that are established.

The impact of situational ethics extends beyond the borders of your team or your company.  It really extends to all your business partners, whether they are suppliers or clients. 

All the stakeholders that touch your firm need to know and understand the principles by which you operate.  They are looking for the same unambiguous standards that you promote for interaction within the company.

At the same time, your employees need to understand that the standards are applicable externally as well as internally.  There should never be a question in their minds about the need to compromise their personal integrity or the company’s standards.  No client, no supplier, no opportunity is ever so important as to require you to defer to a situational ethics decision.  As tempting as it may be in the short term, the consequences that follow will NEVER justify the decision.

The consequences may not be immediate. You may be able to rationalize the decision based on any number of factors.  But as well intentioned as you think your motivation, you move away from your standards at your peril.  RESIST the temptation.  Deal in truth, not in abstract.  Everyone wins when you set the standard and then abide by it.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

It's easier to read a book once it's been opened!

Today’s inspirational leaders are both transparent and vulnerable.  Neither of these qualities is evidence of weakness or a lack of competence; rather they should be viewed as signs of strength. 
The complexities of business, indeed the complexities of life, are increasing daily.  The amount of information that we create is overwhelming and trying to sift through the data to determine what is meaningful and what is simply ‘information traffic’ is an imposing and time-consuming task.  Leaders need to have the strength of character to acknowledge these facts.  And then they must demonstrate the vulnerability to ask for help.
This may come in the form of delegation of responsibility that was outlined previously. But here I am addressing the tsunami that can come up unexpectedly and simply swamp an individual, regardless of how accomplished and experienced they may be.
A healthy and properly functioning team is always ready to breach the gap.  This response, rather than being critical of the leader, is, in fact, an affirmation of their leader.  The willingness to assist demonstrates alignment with their leader and the goals. 
Where vulnerability is hidden, so is trust.  Employees today know all too well the scope of challenges that face every leader.  They may not know specifics, but generally speaking, we are dealing with a workforce that is better educated, plugged into the information streams and acutely aware of the difficult competitive landscape that faces almost every business.  For a leader today to simply internalize or rationalize the issues for fear that they are seen as being unable to cope is an unrealistic and dangerous response.
The strength of character is demonstrated not by the ‘knowing’ but in the ‘asking’.
I have coupled vulnerability with transparency very deliberately.  Because many senior leaders continue to operate in an environment that does not properly acknowledge the impact and influence of social media.
Can you say ‘Facebook’ or ‘YouTube’?
There was a time, less than a decade ago, in which the disingenuous leader was able to operate in a cloaked manner.  But today we have an internet based communications launching pad that distributes information with an immediacy, a scope and a frankness that is unparalleled in history.
Please note that the word ‘information’ is used advisedly.  I did not use the word ‘facts’ because often facts get in the way of a good story.  And most users of these social networks are too lazy to confirm anything. 
Review chapter 2 and the discussion on a higher level of accountability again as you consider this aspect of transparency.
In the inspirational leadership equation I stated that the goal or purpose must be noble.  And by noble I said it must be legal, ethical, moral and achievable.
If there is any abuse of this equation, you can be confident that some social media tool will expose it.  Indeed some sites have that specific mandate.  Wikileaks.com has gained great exposure doing just that. 
A smart phone today acts as a video camera, editor, and transmitter all at once.  History unfolds as a live event and is streamed everywhere. The answer to the implied question then is simple.  A leader cannot lead inspirationally unless they are committed to the goals of transparency and vulnerability.  Those that are committed to this principle have nothing to be concerned about.  Those who cannot stand the light of transparency ought to step out of the glare.  There is no third choice.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

You only get out what you are willing to put in.

Inspirational leaders model and nurture future leaders.  This task is critically important to the ongoing health of an organization and inspirational leaders instinctively demonstrate this capacity because they themselves have often been the beneficiary of this coaching.
Unfortunately you will find situations in every company in which this process is not practiced.  Typically the reason is that the individual in the role of ‘leader’ is ill equipped for the function and is therefore intimidated by those who, by virtue of experience, skill or character, are superior in leadership competence. 
Nurturing and modelling can take on several activities.  A primary method is by delegating responsibility and authority for some functions.  Note however, that accountability cannot be delegated in this model.  To delegate accountability is tantamount to abdication of responsibility and, by definition, is inconsistent with leadership.
Delegation in this model is aligned with the quality outlined in the previous chapter that encouraged risk taking even if it results in failure. That is another reason why accountability cannot be delegated.
Modelling can be demonstrated by the LBWA principle…Leadership by Walking Around.
Twenty years ago, Ken Blanchard wrote the book “The One Minute Manager” in which he talked about ‘managing by walking around’ or MBWA. (1)
The same principle can be applied for developing leadership qualities in your staff.  Leadership by walking around is your opportunity to engage your team members without focusing on specific results of the day. The opportunity to casually share your vision and to have those ‘blue sky’ conversations builds confidence and rapport and goes a long way to keeping the team members willing to follow. 
These are especially good times to catch someone doing something well and to add inspiration through your recognition of their efforts.  A team member who is truly appreciated is one who is more fully committed.  In today’s environment where opportunities for promotion or significant increases in compensation are restricted, an environment that recognizes and acknowledges individual contributions is one which is more likely to attract and retain quality personnel and to have them contribute at a high level.
Nurturing and modelling can never include coercion of any sort.  This includes threats, slander, physical or sexual harassment, or any kind of behaviour intended to force someone into a particular response.  It may seem self-evident, but in fact we have a different definition for this approach or style. Words like bully, dictator or tyrant more appropriately define this type of person.
This is not to suggest that some things are not accomplished using these styles.  But given that the 'willingness to follow' has now been replaced by either pushing or pulling, the inspirational leadership model is not active. 
If you are not certain that the model has changed, just look at the tracks left by the heels that were dug in to resist. They will have left enough of a record to convince even the most sceptical critic that something inappropriate has taken place.
Ideally, your modelling and nurturing is not forced.  Rather it should be the natural outflow of your daily behaviour and activities.  If you are not choosing to demonstrate the characteristics of leadership, you are modelling some other style.  And the probable outcome is that you are alienating your staff, not drawing them into the team objectives that you have established.  If the qualities are not part of your DNA, your insincere approach to the leadership model will ultimately become exposed.  We will discuss the consequences in the next blog.


[1] http://www.kenblanchard.com/Store/Books

Sunday, 3 June 2012

An Enlightend Perspective on 'Failure'

Inspiratonal Leadership requires patience. No organization can maintain the status quo.  Change is inevitable; and with change you introduce the risk of failure.  Yet failure can be an acceptable outcome so long as it is 'controlled'. 
It sounds contradictory that you can gain while losing.  But it is true that our best lessons are learned in adversity.  Therefore an inspirational leader will always be encouraging others to take risks that have the potential to end in failure;  even approving initiatives with which the leader is not in full agreement. 
The key to this principle is that failure can never be such that it is catastrophic or fatal to the life of the enterprise. And equally important, that which is learned must be of greater value that that which has been lost.
This is why an effective leader has a long term focus.  In the long term context, failures take on a proper perspective.  The loss of $1000 may seem important if the monthly target was $10000. But if the annual objective is $120,000, then $1000 is much less significant and the risk is seen in it's context.
Having the resolve to accept failure as a natural part of progression is a liberating attribute for everyone involved.
First it allows for a breadth of creative thought that would otherwise be unlikely. How often are we looking for ways to re-invent a solution or to develop a new and innovative approach to an issue?  As long as failure is viewed in a negative way, reverting to the ‘tried and true’ will always carry more weight than it should. This is not to suggest or imply that failure is, in some way, the objective or to condone it as a goal. You can never make a silk purse from a sow's ear.

But consider these thoughts...
Thomas Edison is rightly regarded as one of the greatest inventors of the 20th century.  Yet failure was his constant companion to which he said: “…I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward..."
Margaret Atwood is one of Canada’s most important novelists.  About failure she had this to say: “…A ratio of failures is built into the process of writing. The wastebasket has evolved for a reason…”


J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books was quoted at her 2008 Harvard University Commencement address: “…it is impossible to live without failing at something; unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all. In which case you have failed, by default..." It


None of these was disuaded by their failures; frustrated and occasionally discouraged to be sure.  But all used failure as a platform for future success.
For the leader, there is a different liberation.  Rather than hand hold the team through to the conclusion, there is an expectation of maturity and improved risk taking that may result in even greater efficiencies in the attainment of the goal.  Fostering this ‘outside the box’ thinking often opens the door to better processes and best practices are actually improved.  How much more productive will your team members become knowing that they have your unqualified support and are daily being encouraged to reach their full potential?  Is this not the same level of trust and support you crave and expect from your superior? 
Leaders today do well to remember that for both themselves and their staff.
Creating a culture and a climate that fosters this attitude is one of the leader’s most important contributions to the organization.  Sometimes it requires the individual to be brave and courageous.  But then, isn’t that our reasonable expectation?