Arlington, VA November 9, 2015
I recently read a great book by Alexandre Havard, entitled Virtuous Leadership", and it set me thinking on leadership style, and the effect of character on leadership. Havard's premise is a simple one: "Leadership is about character. No, leadership is character." In that simple statement, it easier to understand several of the major commercial debacles over the past few years, such as WorldCom, ENRON, and Madoff. it comes down to very simple premises; a real leader is one with character, ethics, and high standards.
Havard goes on to say, "The perpetrators of corporate wrongdoing invariably know that what they are doing is wrong. And yes, they do it anyway. This is a failure of character." We often wonder why these circumstances occur, and various causes are often attributed to them, ranging from greed, to outright lack of ethics. But is the lack of ethical standards all there is to it? I think not.
People perform because they feel the need to perform. Leaders lead because they feel the urge to provide their expertise to a situation where others have not stepped up to assume that leadership. But what about the person who steps up to lead who is unethical? What about the person who steps up out of a sense that they can make money, fame, or other type of fortune on the misfortunes of others? In my view, that person has a deficient character, as much as a deficiency in ethical standards. They will do things they would not do in personal surroundings, or in activities that affect themselves individually and personally.
It is good to believe that people have a natural tendency to do the right thing. Most people are brought up with a sense of ethical standards--however suspect they may be later. In reading over the years of politicians, mobsters, felons, etc., it seems clear that most started out with parents who wanted their child to succeed, and in a good way. As individuals, many led reasonable lives with their families, separating their 'business' ventures from their personal lives. That seems to be the crux of the issue here; is it possible to apply character and ethical standards differently in one's personal life and in their public life?
The answer to that question should invariably be NO. Again referring to Havard, he says, "Everybody has a mission, ...whether he/she knows it or not. A mission... is not something we invent or imagine. it is a specific calling to do a certain something, and in a specific way....Small minded men pass through life as through a tunnel, and with their 'tunnel vision', they see only themselves."
If we see that a person does things in their personal life at variance from what they do in their professional life, we usually want to now the reason why. here, I will argue that it is a case of deficient character--caused by rationalizing away that they can act differently in the professional world than they might in their personal life. They use rationalization because they do not have the courage of their upbringing and convictions to apply ethical principles consistently in their lives. Additionally, the lure of greed, ambition, and the need for acceptance are more powerful in the sterile surroundings of the boardroom than they might be in the living room of one's home.
Exceptional leaders know what they must do to succeed. In making that effort, they apply ethics, values, standards, and even common sense to devise a course to follow, and then perform in conformance with those principles. Anything short of ethical leadership is really a fraud.