Dr Simon Longstaff Interview – HR & Ethical Leadership

Dr Simon Longstaff AO FCPA is Executive Director of the Ethics Centre. His distinguished career includes being named as one of AFR Boss True Leaders for the 21st century, with Carol Schwartz noting; “I don’t know one CEO or chairman in corporate Australia who has not worked with Simon Longstaff”. Simon has a PhD in Philosophy from Cambridge University where he lectured and consulted to the Cambridge Commonwealth and Overseas Trusts and became inaugural Executive Director of The Ethics Centre in 1991. He was also inaugural President of The Australian Association for Professional & Applied Ethics, and serves on a number of boards and committees across a broad spectrum of activities. Simon helped give birth to the Banking and Finance Oath, the annual Festival of Dangerous Ideas, and ethics classes in schools. He is a former Fellow of the World Economic Forum.

Simon, for our readers who don’t know you or The Ethics Centre already, please tell us a bit about your organisation. Why do you exist?

The Ethics Centre is 27 years young. It is a charity – established without any capital. That brute fact means we have to be innovative, constantly inventing and refining tools, processes, frameworks and forms of engagement to help people address the ethical dimension of life. We have a very public face including co-creating the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, and a very private face offering the world’s only free, national helpline for individuals with ethical concerns (Ethi-call 1800 672 303). We exist to bring ethics to the centre of everyday life. For over a quarter of a century we have been lending a hand to individuals and organisations as they navigate the complexities of life. Rather than relying on regulation and surveillance, we think the development and use of a common ethical compass offers a much better way to manage risk and drive results.

Everyone’s ethics are different so how do you allow for that when you’re advising people and organisations?

We always start from the beliefs of the individuals or organisations with whom we are working. The Ethics Centre is not a ‘moral policeman’. We don’t seek to impose our views. Instead, we help people bring their thinking into line with day-to-day practice. Sometimes, this involves us working with organisations to build an ethical framework, a clear shared purpose and way of ‘calibrating’ how things are done, which is the foundation for a strong and effective culture. At other times, we deploy some of our tools to compare and contrast what an organisation says with what it does.

How do we recognise a healthy culture and ethical leadership? What does it look like?

At its simplest, a healthy culture exists when there is a high degree of alignment between what an organisation claims to be and what it actually is, in practice. This is not just a matter of individual experience and perceptions. It depends on coherent systems, policies and structures – the ‘bones’ of the organisation. Great leaders act on it all. They challenge the unthinking customs and practices that so often lead good people to do bad things. They find the blind spots that develop around habits. They won’t accept “everyone does it” or “it’s always been like this” as an adequate explanation. It takes considerable courage to question the norm, even when you hold a senior role. I find ethical leaders regularly engage in constructive subversion – contesting the status quo to help the organisation to become more like the thing it says it needs to be. Unfortunately, the kind of courage required cannot be developed in a class-room. It only arises out of carefully tailored learning of a kind rarely made available to emerging leaders.

What approach might a Director take if his or her personal ethics conflicts with the corporation’s conduct?

In the end, an organisation has a right to expect employees to apply its (and not their personal) values and principles in their work. This is something relatively new. It used to be the case that employees merely had to agree to obey a corporation’s rules; however, this cannot work in our complicated world. Too often, the rules are ambiguous or silent. That’s why it has become so important for companies to recruit people whose personal values and principles complement those of the organisation. This is not to say that employees need to be ‘corporate clones’. Rather, it is a matter of finding people whose personal ethical framework is a natural fit with that of the employer. Identifying this ‘fit’ begins with the employer being clear about its own purpose, values and principles. It is then a matter of employing a range of techniques to gauge prospective employee alignment. For example using scenarios – including issues drawn from the general news (in which the employee describes their response to ethically significant situations) and candidate anecdotes (in which the person is asked to describe and explain a situation in which their values and principles were tested – and how they responded). In general, the aim is to develop an understanding of how the candidate applies their ethical framework in practice – and not just at the rhetorical level. This brings us back to the person in a position of leadership – to whom the same general rule of alignment also applies. If there is a significant conflict between a leader and their organisation, I would recommend they leave and find another opportunity. One of the most interesting features of the evolving business environment is the move towards an ‘ecology of meaning’ where corporations are defined less by what they do and more by what they mean or are. In this environment, it should be possible to find roles where the organisation and individual’s core values and principles work well together.

What do you see as the main pressures and challenges for leaders today?

I think the greatest pressure on modern leaders is the absence of time to stop and think. Most employed people are being asked to do more with less time and resources. In such circumstances, it is very easy to fall back on habits to survive. The problem with this is habits can lose their currency. What was once useful can become damaging in a new environment. Given the pace of change, it is just too risky not to think actively about the decisions we need to make. Ethics is ultimately the ‘science of choice’ – which is why developing a capacity in this area can open up space in the mind, allowing for a degree of deliberation, even in the midst of a busy life. Fortunately, ethics and decision making can be learned and practiced. The pressure to perform also eats away at a leaders’ capacity to be authentic. Too often a busy individual loses themselves in their role. Again, a firm grasp of one’s values and principles acts as an antidote to this particular poison.

What role do you believe HR can play in developing a culture of ethical leadership?

HR practitioners have a vital role, if only their colleagues allow them to play it. There are growing pressures to reduce every aspect of life to the equivalent of a soundbite, denying the intricacies and squeezing everything into a shorter time. HR professionals know better than most that there are some things that cannot be rushed if their value is to be realised. So, your challenge is to make the case for allocating time and resources to fostering good leadership, which is different to competent management. You need to contest the mistaken belief that HR is ‘soft’, in comparison to ‘harder’ financial and operational decisions. And perhaps your greatest power is your ability to hold a mirror to your organisation. Sometimes that is the insight executives need if they are to invest in the kind of leadership that can help the business become what it says it wants to be.

How do you build ethical capacity in leaders and leadership?

To be honest, there is only so much that can be done through the sharing of information and ideas. Ideally, ethical capacity is developed away from the office – in a place that allows leaders to see themselves in perspective and on a human level. It’s easy enough to learn leadership skills. The greater challenge is to develop and sometimes recover the characteristics needed to lead. The best programs challenge the prospective leader physically, intellectually and emotionally, helping them see their own untapped potential to rise to any challenge. In my experience, you need programs that are immersive, experiential and backed by solid support through ongoing work and conversation. The issue with such learning is not money (costs are comparable with other programs), it is always a question of time. However, as the famous philosopher Immanuel Kant once observed, “To will the end is to will the means”. That is, if organisations wish to develop good leaders, they must invest in the means to make it possible.

Learn more – Simon presented on the topic of Ethical Leadership to an exclusive group of HR Executives at Peoplecorp’s recent ‘Ask The Expert’ luncheon.