You can be an exceptional leader and act decently at the same time. Leadership and common decency are not mutually exclusive ideas. In fact, great leaders are often decent human beings. Of course, many are not. It’s the last point that we need to shine a light on.
Surely, I don’t have to outline the many examples of corporate greed and the disingenuous behavior of our current bi-partisan political leaders. Instead, I’ll simply leave it up to you to choose your favorite illustration of the point. The sad truth is many leaders fail to act with any modicum of decency.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Indeed, it is up to is to bring common decency back to business.
As top business leaders, we can, and should, strive to act with decency, dignity and a strong sense of propriety at all times. On balance, don’t we want to be the kind of leaders that warrant respect and admiration? Operating underhandedly for one’s own personal gain or need to demonstrate superiority is tantamount to being dishonest and a bully. Who wants to follow someone like that?
Here are a few reminders that I’ve learned from the groundbreaking work of Marshall Goldsmith on shareholder-centered leadership. I use them to highlight what decency looks like. Each can be helpful, should you choose to get your leadership style back on-track:
- Recognize that leadership is not about you. It’s about those you lead. The return to decency begins by recognizing this simple fact. If you’re more concerned about maintaining your status as a superstar than you are listening to your people and discovering new ways to develop and motivate them, you’re not operating with your people’s best interests in mind. Moreover, because your ego is in the driver’s seat, changes are high that you’re sometimes behaving in deceitful ways, too. So, stop fretting over making yourself look good and start putting your team’s needs ahead of your own.
- Stop needing to win so much. From an early age, many successful people have been programmed to “win” in everything that they do. They feel compelled to win at work, at home and during every waking moment. Unfortunately, some take it to an extreme and they’re willing to resort to cheating and deceit in order to get the endorphin rush that comes with “victory.” If you want to lead decency, you have to stop needing to win so much. Instead, look to get the “rush” from satisfaction that comes from developing a winning team of high integrity people who, themselves, lead with decency.
- Learn to feed forward. We all know what feedback is. However, do you know what feed forward is about? It’s a terrific concept to fold into your repertoire, if you want to lead decently. Instead of rehashing all of the things that a team member has done unsatisfactorily, focus on providing advice on what they can do in the future to improve on how they operate. After all, we can’t change what has happened in the past. However, we can choose to make changes in the future. Feed forward and watch your decency quotient rise across the business.
- When in doubt, use the Decency Acid Test. When asked, “How do you sleep at night knowing that some of your decisions will lead to people losing their jobs?,” Harry Kraemer, former Chairman and CEO of Baxter International brilliantly responded “I ask myself two questions: Did I do what I thought was the right thing to do? Did I do my best? If so, I can sleep.”
What’s exceptional about Kraemer’s reply is that it demonstrates the great care, concern and empathy in which he approached tough decisions. Clearly, decency plays a large part in his character.
I offer that we can use these same two questions to fashion a Decency Acid Test for use when we’re about to make a tough decision:
- Am I doing what I think is the right thing to do?
- Am I doing my best?
If you answer “yes” to both, you’re likely operating decently. If not, it’s time to reevaluate your decision.
As leaders, we all like to think that we do unto others, as we would have them do unto us. Clearly, we don’t always behave this way! Bringing common decency back to business requires that we actually begin to live, and behave, by the Golden Rule. When we do this, we will have brought decency back to business.
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