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Leadership – perfect intentions in an imperfect world

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Preparing for a leadership coaching master class is always an exciting challenge and this week is no exception.  The topic is ethics and I’m taking the theme of how we can deliver on our perfect intentions in this imperfect world.  For me, ethics are a key component in our growth and progress as leaders and coaches.

I want to explore how we can deliver to our best and maintain our moral integrity.  Really understanding what it is to be a better leader, or a more professional coach.  My intention is to start a conversation – so please do add your own thoughts at the end of this post.

My first point of reference is always our clients.  Without exception they’re under pressure to deliver – but the impact is unique and different for each.  So how do we balance the need to deliver on performance with the obligations that professional and social ethics demand? 

Many clients express the frustration that pressure creates – and how this gets in the way of being at their best. This is paradoxical, because my clients are typically driven and ambitious.  They want to deliver – but the pressures on them can get in the way of this forward momentum.

We’re interviewing Adam Bryant, author of The Corner Office (a weekly article written for the New York Times) later this month (email if you want to get a place on that call)

I like his distinction between the personal qualities of success and what he calls “the whole moral/ethics discussion”.  So if you’d like to have a preview to that call, listen to him talk about the five qualities of great CEO’s here:

To summarise, Bryant’s five qualities are:

  1. Passionate curiosity: deep engagement with and interest in, people and things
  2. Battle-hardened confidence: confidence based on your practical experience of what works
  3. Team smart: political awareness of the organisation you work in
  4. A simple mind-set: distilling messages down so that people can connect with and remember them
  5. Fearlessness: a bias towards action – not ‘activity’ for its own sake

So these are personal qualities but they’re not necessarily morally or ethically based.  When I think about ethics-based leadership qualities I think of James Autry, author of “The Servant Leader” – a class work which focuses on maintaining what Autry calls our ‘spiritual focus’ while dealing with challenging issues.

servant leaderNow I don’t want to go down the religious or cultural definitions of ‘spiritual’ but I do believe that, as human beings, we care and want to care about each other.  I also believe that when we don’t live up to our personal standards of caring about others, we may deliver, but we don’t live up to our personal morals or professional ethics.

On a practical day-to-day level living up to our ethics means that people’s’ morale is high and our environment is a great place to work.  This is a cornerstone of employee engagement and I refer you to the website which doesn’t argue for a ‘one size fits all’ solution – rather simply offers a framework for better staff morale.

Two definitions of ethical leadership

So my first definition of ethical leadership is to provide the environment in which people can flourish and deliver. That’s the positive approach.

My second definition is that leaders provide guidance through tough times – during conflict and crisis situations – things like –

  • Performance issues
  • Bullying or harassment
  • Time management
  • Team working
  • Substance abuse
  • Personal issues

Each of these topics has an ethical dimension and the way we deal with these issues can define our leadership profile with others.

What’s interesting to me is that they way that leaders deal with these issues appear defined by their own personal preferences.  In individual and team coaching sessions people talk about dealing with others “they way they’d like to be dealt with”.

Now this may sound great – but if your preferences are different to mine this, in itself, could lead to misunderstanding at best and conflict at worst.  So this internalising of ethics may get externalised – without reference to the morals, ethics or preferences of others.  Seeing ourselves through the filters of others is an important first step of ethical behaviour.

So ethics is a huge topic.  It covers not just what we do, or how we do it, but the whole nature of our character – ‘who we’re being’.

Here are three actions I’d recommend as steps from this blog:

  1. Think about your own morals, ethics and values: know what’s important to you and how you like to be treated in group situations
  2. Have an open conversation with someone else on this topic: notice what’s different in their way of thinking from yours; notice what’s the same; and please, do agree to differ!
  3. Look at the values espoused by your organisation: see what you can immediately agree with, those you will align with, and those you might need to work on in order to comply with.

So in the spirit of Bryant’s quality of a simple mind-set “Resonance, Agreement, Compliance” are fundamental to practising ethical leadership.  They’re key to our growth and to reconciling our perfect intentions in this imperfect world.


Author: Helen Caton Hughes

Leadership and Team Coach based on inspirational and practical tools. Works with leaders around the world; trains coaches to International Coach Federation standards. Passionate about finding best ways for leaders to inspire themselves and get the best from their teams

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