Exploring the origins, ethics and future of changemaking

Can ethics or leadership be done alone?

In Leadership on June 12, 2012 at 10:28 am

Can ethics or leadership be done alone? I have thought a lot about this notion in the western world of the individual leader. As a CEO I struggled with the expectation that I needed to be ‘accomplished’ or effective at all aspects of the business. Of course, I had some people tell me that this was not so, yet the social consciousness places so much significance on the individual leader.

Leading an organisation takes a lot of skills. There are the domains of finance, operations, administration, strategy and governance. Then there are the meta-skill areas of emotional intelligence, discernment, decision making and consultation (amongst many more). The idea of one person being accomplished at all of these domains and possessing all of these skills is ludicrous, yet that is often what is expected.

Ethical leadership and ethical decision-making is another core skill of leadership, and equally it should not be assumed that one leader is accomplished at this. In my experience as a CEO, whenever we faced an ethical dilemma within our organisation or program the outcome would have been significantly jeopardized if I did not collaborate with others. I most often defaulted to collaboration rather consultation, because I believe it requires a whole lot more than simply seeking the opinions of others. On one occasion I recall consulting and making a decision, and reflected later that the decision would have been enhanced if we made the decision together.

Consultation and collaboration is challenging though. There was another situation where I collaborated on a decision and sought input from colleagues. We collectively came up with an outcome. Later I reflected that the decision would have been enhanced by me not listening to one particular persons views, but rather to take more time and contemplate on the situation. That person dominated the dialogue and influenced others’ (including my) thinking, leading to a not so effective outcome.

This can be a tricky balance. Our world is increasingly focused on the importance of the collective in leadership and decision making. Sometimes though, an individual just needs to make a decision. Knowing when and how to engage others in decision making is not always easy to discern, as sometimes others will have different perceptions about what is the right thing to do.

For me it comes down to having a good sense of self, and some practices that allow leaders to tap into their inner guidance or knowing. Collaboration is important, not just in decision making but in achieving buy-in to decisions. The collective will not always see what is right though. Sometimes what you perceive to be the right thing to do will go against the grain of the collective. It takes a great deal of courage and trust to go with your inner guidance and make a decision for what you believe is right. It is then wise to balance this with some humility to look back and reflect on how that played out, and if you would do it differently the next time.

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