There is a lot of talk in leadership and business circles about ‘values’ and ‘character’ and ‘emotional intelligence’ and ‘doing well by doing good’. “Wonderful!” you might say. And you’d mostly be right. Yet there is a disturbing thread that ties all these discussions together. The underlying sell to business leaders is that being good, doing what is right etc will be a smart business decision that will increase your long term profitability. I totally get why consultants, authors, keynote speakers and spruikers sell their product like this. I have been known to do it myself!
So what’s the problem with this? Isn’t it true? Well, the fundamental problem I have with this is the deficient ethical framework within which this discussion is embedded. The premise is that I will be and do good, if it is profitable for my company (or myself). What this is saying is that in fact the greatest good is profit maximisation. Now happily, in the way the world is wired up, there are lots of occasions when doing what is truly good does in fact result in a healthy, profitable, sustainable business. But not always. There are many examples of dishonest people and companies prospering. The converse is also true - there are plenty of times when honesty is not the best policy for financial gain. So here is the challenge: Is our conception of, and commitment to, being and doing what is good and right and true, robust enough to guide our behaviour even when it goes against our economic interest? What if treating my staff the way I would want to be treated makes me poor? What if telling the truth limits my corporate success?
The difficulty with this is twofold. Firstly it requires a belief in an objective moral order that stands over and above economic self-interest, or enlightened pragmatism. Secondly it requires leaders who have the intestinal fortitude, (or gonadal greatness!) to live out these beliefs in the face of adversity, criticism and suffering. It seems to me that our culture, our organisations, our people are (in some cases literally) dying for want of leaders whose lives are fearlessly guided by a moral compass that points to what is truly True. What do you think?