What a stellar week we have had with our latest event with The Ethics Centre. Dr. Simon Longstaff’s credentials are well known and highly regarded so there was quite a buzz in the packed room when he began his talk on leadership in an ethical culture.
Dr. Longstaff restated just what leaders are responsible for, namely the decisions of their people and how they set tone, and creating the governance structures, systems and controls for decision making.
Having worked with the Australian Defence Force, who Simon describes as some of the most sophisticated risk managers, he shared their definition of leadership as, “The exercise of influence in order to bring about the willing consent of others in the ethical pursuit of missions”.
He explained that risk too often results in over-engineered and regulated systems leaving companies with inflexible employees that feel totally disempowered to make good decisions.
This expensive and compliance-focussed approach has been adopted by governments and corporates around the world. However, its widespread use does not mean it is reaping results and there are sound reasons for thinking regulation and surveillance cannot be relied upon to manage risk efficiently or effectively.
Simon used the analogy of putting a person into a full-body plaster cast. It might give them great posture, but underneath it all their body will be changing; muscles wasting away to nothing and doomed to collapse.
In an over-regulated environment an organisation may appear to be a model of stability but delve deeper and the cracks will be there. In that world, you actually increase the level of risk.
So if the way we’re doing things isn’t working, what will?
Defining, sharing and embedding that ethical framework is key.
When given unconstrained choice, people will invariably pick the option they think is good or better. But your choice may be entirely different to the person sitting next to you. (Proven using the optical illusion below)
What do you see? A Lady in a Hat or a Haggard Old Woman?
Choices and ideas of what’s good and right varies significantly between people. Ultimately we all see things differently. To take the military as our example, some soldiers may see wounded children while others see collateral damage.
Ethics and our societies are built on endless individual and collective choices. The guide for each of those decisions is our own principles, values and priorities which in turn are formed by our personal experiences and the culture we operate in.
Simon has previously talked about the vital role for HR and their unique ability to hold a mirror to their organisations . As leaders we need to assess the difference between what we say and what we do.
By exploring the notions of willful and conditioned blindness Simon gave examples of how values can mutate putting us all at risk.
His presentation also named and explored the two enemies of ethical practice.
The first – hypocrisy. Is your organisation who they say they are? If not the resulting cynicism will eat away at the bonds that keep your people engaged.
The second – habit. If you ever hear anyone offer “that’s how it’s done” as a reason for a choice or action that’s a red flag. Sticking to custom or practice without thought or question is a slippery slope.
Drawing on insights developed from the study of history, philosophy, psychology and military doctrine Simon outlined what is needed to build executives’ capacity to make good decisions in the face of high levels of uncertainty, ambiguity and scrutiny. To see the ‘tiger in the room’.
For him the most important thing is that organisations’ hold true to their values, purpose and principles, ensuring they recruit people which are in alignment.
We would like to thank Dr Simon Longstaff for an immensely thought-provoking presentation and The Ethics Centre for collaborating with us.
The Ethics Centre is an independent not-for-profit organisation that has been working for over 25 years to help people navigate the complexity and uncertainty of difficult ethical issues.