Do business leaders need a moral compass?
Of course…. Is the simple answer to that question. And it’s not as if business leaders don’t have one, although those looking on from outside the corporate bubble may be forgiven for thinking they lost any sense of morality they might have had. However, business leaders are made, not born. They, like ordinary mortals, are usually brought up with a strong sense of values. Sometimes such an upbringing is a mark that stays for life, whatever the pressures of business life. Sometimes, but not always
What is a moral compass?
A moral compass is often defined as “doing the right thing, even if no one is looking.” In today’s world of virtue signalling and *****washing exercises (here substitute ***** for any trendy fashionable view) it would seem some leaders sanction, or at the very least condone, all sorts of dubious behaviour within their businesses. Sometimes they can be in complete denial of what is really going on within the business. I remember one senior banker asserting that he had a “no jerks” policy. He was an American so that meant he never hired anyone with bad behaviours such as bullying. You could hear the hollow laughter ringing throughout the organisation as employees compared notes on all the management jerks they had to deal with – the tone for their behaviour set from the top.
Time was when, for example, Quaker families such as Cadbury ran their businesses according to the moral values imbued from childhood. Fast forward a century and such values are subsumed by carefully crafted statements around concepts such as stake holders – the business leaders essentially holding the ring and balancing competing interests. To some, that comes across as fence sitting. True leaders shouldn’t be afraid of giving a proper steer. The key question, ought to be, “What’s the right thing to do here?” when confronted with a tricky scenario. Standing back should be the first act of a truly moral leader. Too often, business leaders reach for General Counsel rather than thinking for themselves. Lawyers have a role, but that role is usually confined to a combination of the law and what’s best for the shareholders; other stakeholders, employees, suppliers, local communities often take a back seat.
So moral leaders won’t shy away from assessing for themselves what the right thing to do is. Such a position will then flow though the organisation, once the boss has set the tone. Eventually the benefits flow. I say eventually, because moral leadership has never been and cannot ever be a quick fix. The business leader is attempting to build a reputation and that takes time, even though reputations can be lost in an instant. If it all sounds like altruism – it is. And the definition of altruism is ultimately long-term self-interest.
Another way of looking at is brand building. Every decision a leader makes can have an effect on the brand. The trick is to ensure you make more positive decisions for the brand rather than negative ones.
None of this is a call for taking the easy option. Often, doing the ethical thing requires bravery and boldness. One reason leaders appear to make the wrong decision is because they reach for hackneyed communications protocols. Despite what communications professionals will tell you there is never an effective one-style-fits-all approach for given situations. Every decision will be based on infinitely varying scenarios and require a nuanced approach. Cookie-cutter responses will be spotted instantly and harm the brand and ultimately the business.
So, do business leaders need a moral compass?
Yes, they do. They probably already have one, but it’s been buried over the years by all the detritus accumulated over years of climbing the greasy pole. How to find it? One strategy is to take yourself back to childhood. What would your mother/father say about any decision you made and how you justified yourself?
About the author
Khalid Aziz is founder and chairman of Aziz Corporate who work with senior leaders and their top teams to improve organisational performance through executive mentoring and coaching and by developing better communication skills to maximise employee engagement. He has spent the last 30 years’ working with FTSE 250 companies, offering tailored 1:1 programmes, bespoke group workshops as well as individual, team and group coaching.
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