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12 Dec. 2011 | Comments (0)

You are running a company in a competitive market and trying very hard to win some meaty business mandates. The competition is intense. Decision makers at client organizations expect you to ‘look after them’ in return for their business. Local and regional competitors have no hesitation in doing whatever it takes (in cash or kind) to get the business. If you don’t play the game, there is almost no chance for you to win the mandates. Your company upholds integrity above all else. Paying someone directly or indirectly to win business is a complete no-go in your company’s playbook. On the other hand, if you do ‘look after’ your clients, chances are no one will ever know. What will you do?

Asians often appoint friends and family to important positions in their companies, at times even at the cost of meritocracy. According to them, it is important to have trust worthy people in key positions, and who better than family and close friends when it comes to trustworthiness?

In Asia, relationships trump rules. If a rule or two needs to be bent in order to help a friend or family member, so be it. After all, what can be bigger than loyalty to your loved ones? It is your duty to help them. Westerners sometimes find it hard to trust Asians because “Asians always favor their friends and family” over rules and meritocracy.

In the West, rules trump relationships. Rules are rules, and no one is above the law. If it comes to choosing between doing the right thing and helping a friend, most Americans and western Europeans will chose the former. They strongly believe that when it comes to integrity and fairness, everyone should be treated the same way. In fact, Asians sometimes find it hard to trust western people because “they do not even help their own friends and family.”

Who is right and who is wrong?

Fons Trompenaars, one of the world’s leading experts in cross-cultural studies, likes to pose an imaginary dilemma to participants of his seminars. He asks you to imagine you were riding in a car driven by your friend, and you friend is driving at 35 miles an hour in a 25 miles an hour speed zone. Your friend hits a pedestrian, and a case is filed against him in court. Your friend’s lawyer informs you that since you are the only witness, if you testify in court that your friend was not over the speed limit, your friend will be let off without charges. Fons poses two questions: a) does your friend have the right to expect you to lie for him in court, and b) will you lie in court?

In most rooms where these questions are posed, people either strongly say no, or comfortably say yes. Those that say no come from cultures where rules are considered more important than relationships, and vice versa. However, many that violently say no find themselves in trouble when asked this follow-up question: What if the driver was your son or daughter?

Dilemmas like these test your values. In fact they also test the extent to which you are prepared to act according to your stated values. Which values are good and which are not? When is OK to deviate from stated values? When it comes to leadership, these dilemmas become even more important because now your actions affect a large number of people.

In my book, Too Many Bosses, Too Few Leaders, I have argued that leadership is about having the energy to stay the long course in order to create a better future. To be an effective leader, you must first imagine a better future, and then find the energy to create it despite the most formidable of obstacles. The key to effective leadership therefore is to uncover limitless sources of inner energy, which comes from developing laser sharp clarity about your purpose -- the better future you want to create, and your values -- the principles that will guide your behavior as you go about it.

Consider Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Howard Schultz of Starbucks, Darwin Smith of Kimberly Clark, and Alan Mulally of Ford. What is common between them? They all had or have a clear sense of purpose -- the better future they wanted to create. In addition to their clear purpose, however, they also had deep conviction in a set of values, and the courage to act according to them.

Gandhi and Mandela are perhaps the greatest examples of values based behavior. No matter how hard the road to freedom became, Gandhi never gave up his belief in truth, humility and non-violence. He never compromised these values for anything. After 27 years in prison, Mandela’s first action as a leader was to forgive his captors and to appeal for peace and harmony instead of hatred and violence. It is values along with purpose that gave these leaders the long haul energy they needed to create a better future.

However, not everyone liked Gandhi and Mandela’s values. In both cases, there were people that wanted an eye for an eye, and wanted to fight violence with violence. “Why should we tolerate injustice, and why should we offer the other cheek?” they argued.

That purpose and values are an integral part of leadership is a well-understood fact. However, the million-dollar questions for leaders are: who should decide if a leader’s purpose creates a better or worse future, and who determines which values are ethical or otherwise? How should we decide who is right and who is wrong?

We looked at much of the available philosophy on ethics and morality and it was of not much help. The summary of different schools of thought is presented in the table below.

Table 1

While it is interesting to know the various schools of thought, one is still confused about what is right and wrong. For example, imagine if you were standing in front of a burning building and you see four children surrounded by fire on your right, and one child in similar circumstances towards your left. If you could only save either the four or the one child, Utilitarianism would say you should go for the four. However, if the single child was your own son or daughter, while Utilitarianism would still say go for the four, the Deontological theory would say do your duty as a parent and protect your child.

So in the absence of clear cut guidelines, how should a leader then decide what purpose and what values to adopt? I am not sure there will ever be a straight forward answer because by its very nature, leadership is about operating amidst ambiguity, and about taking a stand.

After thinking about this for a long time, I have landed back on what most parents try to teach their children all over the world. Each individual needs to first develop a sense of purpose and values that he/she can be totally comfortable with. After that, you have to let the followers decide if they agree with you or not. Those that believe in and can relate to your purpose and values will give you their dedicated followership. Those that don’t will oppose you.

In my opinion, the answer lies in developing the habit of honest reflection. Two simple guidelines should help:

  • Devil’s advocate test -- No matter how right or justified your purpose and values feel, you need to look at them from the outside and ask what their dark side could be, if any. For those that might oppose you, what might their objections be? What negative consequences (collateral damage) might occur while you pursue what you believe to be a better future? After developing a clear counter point, proceed to guideline two – the sleep and mirror test.
  • Sleep and mirror test -- At the end of the day, if you can stand in front of the mirror and be comfortable with what you see, and if you can sleep soundly with a clear conscience despite the devil’s advocate test, that is a good start. Now leave it to followers to decide if they want to reward you with their committed followership or not.

Ultimately, your purpose and your values shape your leadership identity. Are you comfortable with yours?

  • About the Author: Rajeev Peshawaria

    Rajeev Peshawaria

    Rajeev Peshawaria is a Senior Fellow, Human Capital at The Conference Board. In this role, Peshawaria supports the Human Capital Practice which includes The Conference Board Human Capital Exchange&tra…

    Full Bio | More from Rajeev Peshawaria


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