You gotta have trust
Sincerity is the key, quipped Groucho Marx. If you can fake that you have got it made. Faking doesn’t last long in business, however. The staff will spot it soon enough, if your beliefs do not match your actions. There is increasing evidence that responsible leadership, based on an understanding of the contributions of different constituencies, makes business sense. But how deep is the belief?
Many business leaders have made some steps away from a short-term focus, towards a more sustainable approach, nurturing all stakeholders. But taking limited steps can, ironically, sometimes be worse than making none. If your beliefs and your heart are not fully engaged, the approach can appear insincere or simply confusing.
Take employee engagement. It is quite a common experience for businesses to be run on the basis of the bottom line calculation, with employees treated as little more than a cost or a nuisance, and no real effort to communicate by senior management. Then suddenly everyone is expected to be enthused by an away-day or awards event, because the chief executive has read an article or two about engagement.
Some veterans from both the management and the union side of partnership deals – where the principle is that the union seeks to help the business win orders and jobs and may even have a place on the Board – stress that this approach depends upon a high level of trust. It can be disastrous for managers and unions formally to sign up for ‘partnership’, but without the foundation of trust and respect to support this. Without trust, it is probably better to have traditional negotiations and bargaining.
A superficial commitment to partnership-based management, or sustainability, can damage the reputation of such an approach, and make it appear like a fad. In the environmental field, the term ‘greenwashing’ has been coined to describe this superficial approach, and it can make it difficult for a company to return to the subject of green business.
A commitment to principled, enlightened leadership means following through, and not baulking at the implications. Such leaders understand their emotions and beliefs; create bonds of trust with their colleagues, and reach out to the wider community both within and outside the organization. They see leadership as involving heart, mind and soul, not just analytical capability.
Traditional MBA-style business education in the late 20th Century made this difficult. It emphasized disconnection. It chopped businesses off from personal matters (these were deemed too soft or self-indulgent) and from the societal and environmental dimension (seen as being a matter for politicians and NGOs, not busy executives). This approach has often been criticized as being unethical, but it is increasingly evident that it is impractical also. Divorcing your business strategy from concern for the planet does not make good business sense over the longer term, because the planet is where the business is located. Disregarding the welfare and ambitions of the workers is a high-risk approach, because ultimately they are responsible for delivering on the promises that the leadership team have made to the customers, the shareholders and other interested parties.
A different style of leadership implies attention to all matters: business relationships as well as business strategies; personal conduct as well as parliamentary legislation; belief as well as decision-making ability. Rewards from an engaged, empowered workforce, and green, smart ways of working, are considerable. This is a question of leadership culture, good practice and trust, not just a policy.