This is the first of three articles constituting Part 1, the conceptual introduction of my upcoming book.
This book is about the internal psychological system that produces our thoughts, emotions, decisions, communication and behavior. I’ve named it our Soular System because “soul” typically refers to a fundamental animating force. This internal system that animates our thoughts and actions has three dimensions: moral, rational and emotional. I have yet to meet someone who is not able to distinguish these dimensions, or voices, which speak to us and prompt us to think and behave in ways that either increase or diminish our relationship and leadership effectiveness.
Based on our decisions, communication and actions over time, we exercise and strengthen one of these dimensions most, thus placing it in the central, or leadership role, of our Soular system. The primary influence of each of these dimensions on our behavior, when placed in that central leadership role, may be defined as:
- Moral Dimension (Voice) : Our moral conscience or compass; the internal voice that asks: Is this right? The “heart” in a healthy and integrated Soular System.
- Rational Dimension (Voice): Our cerebral “calculating” function; the internal voice that tries to eliminate uncertainty and undesirable consequences by asking “Is it safe?”
- Emotional Dimension (Voice): The internal voice that asks “Does it feel good?”
Ideally these dimensions are aligned and integrated under the leadership of our Higher Moral voice, so that they produce the decisions and behavior that elicit trust and respect from others, and thus influence them in positive ways. For when our Higher Moral dimension is at the center of our Soular System, it exerts a strong gravitational pull that aligns our rational and emotional dimensions in supporting roles that enhance our critical thinking and decision-making capabilities, along with our emotional intelligence and health. Our Rational dimension is freed up from the the neural storms created by constant and futile attempts to rationalize our wrong behavior, so there is an abundance of “free space” to think more critically and creatively. And rather than being corrupted by the toxic emotions created when we try to justify our wrong behavior, our Emotional dimension automatically creates the healthy and positive emotions required to fuel our continual growth and success.
When these three dimensions are not properly aligned and integrated under the leadership of our Higher Moral voice, however, we become increasingly influenced and shaped by our environment, as well as internally fragmented and dis-eased. We increasingly perceive ourselves as powerless victims of other people and circumstances and slowly become the antithesis of leadership.
In Part 2 of the book we will explore and illustrate in more depth how our internal Soular System works either to increase or erode our leadership influence, emotional intelligence and inner peace. In Part 3 we will outline the practical steps we can take to build a healthy, aligned and integrated Soular System, not only within ourselves, but within our teams and organizations.
Our Higher Moral Dimension/Voice: leader or subordinate?
There is a large body of research indicating that common universal values exist that humans admire and aspire to irrespective of national, cultural, racial, or socio-economic differences. The research of the social scientist Shalom Schwartz is generally regarded as the most exhaustive and empirically validated in this area.
The priority order of these values is remarkably consistent across all societies, with the top two values described as “Self-Transcendence” (benevolence and universalism). Because these self-transcendent values are so universally admired they have the power to elicit the deepest trust and respect from others. Thus, they are the foundational values and moral voice, or “heart” in our Soular system. That is because they affect our ability to influence others far more than any knowledge or skill we may possess.
These self-transcendent universal values, which our Higher Moral Voice (moral compass or conscience) prompts us to follow, may be essentially summarized in two fundamental principles: the Golden Rule for behavior and Integrity in communication.
The Golden Rule in Action
The case for the Golden Rule as the essence of these universal values is compelling in both the scientific and religious literature. Integrity in communication is of course a component of the Golden Rule, but due special consideration given its impact on our trustworthiness and ability to influence others. While we may encounter a few scenarios in our lifetime where not disclosing the full truth may be the best application of the Golden Rule, anytime we lie or distort the truth we do significant damage to our inner psychological system and reduce our future leadership influence, as we will discuss later in detail.
The Golden Rule, as it is generally known in the West, is: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 7:12 NIV). This brief statement, present in kind in every major religion, is much deeper and more profound in implication than may appear at first look. It is helpful to consider its full implications vis-à-vis Kant’s categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” In essence it requires us to regard the long-term consequences for all those affected as the primary consideration in our decisions and actions.
The Golden Rule is an executive summary of the higher universal principles required for effective human relationships, civil societies and influencing others. These principles ask us to care enough for others to do what is in their long-term best interest, because that is how we would wish to be treated. I doubt anyone of us would prefer that someone be “nice” to us in order to spare our immediate feelings at the expense of our long-term growth, success and happiness. Yet how often do we “do unto others” precisely that? There is a way to speak and act in the best interest of others, yet with deep care and empathy, that captures the essence of the Golden Rule. It is a relatively straightforward and simple principle to understand, but one equally hard to practice if we have not aligned and exercised our inner Soular System to produce it as a natural outcome.
What seems lost to some in our “advanced” culture is that when one behaves and communicates from the higher moral ground, the vast majority of people will not only reciprocate in kind, but be influenced to create a pay-it-forward domino effect throughout the organization. If we operate from a lower plane, we should not be surprised to see corrupted communication and behavior driven by narrow self-interest reflected in our teams and organizational cultures. This law of reciprocity (Confucius) is a fundamental tenet of human nature which we violate at our own peril. It is why many leaders who are constantly asking, pleading with and directing others to change find their cries for change met with indifference, resistance or even sabotage.
Those leaders who understand the natural law of stimulus and response understand that when they look in the mirror and change their own behavior to a higher plane, that change in stimulus will produce a different and higher response in others.
Yet, often in scenarios like workforce reductions, we gain insight into just how infrequently the Golden Rule and integrity are actually applied. February 4th, 2019, “Black Monday” at GM, was the beginning of a workforce reduction of about 14,000 factory and white-collar workers in the U.S. A spokesperson for GM refused to confirm any exact numbers or dates for the reduction the week prior because “our employees are our priority” and “we want them to be informed first.” They demonstrated exactly what they meant by “priority” when hundreds of staff in corporate offices, some with over two decades of service to GM, were called into conference rooms to be notified of their termination for the first time, then escorted out of the building half an hour later by extra security personnel.
It would be impossible to calculate the long-term costs to these employees and their families from such sudden notice. Given the Golden Rule takes into account the long-term impact on all those affected by our decisions and behavior, in this case it should also include the effect on those employees remaining at GM and the longer-term health of the company. It seems obvious that a primary effect on the remaining employees would be greater fear and uncertainty about their future employment and relative worth to the company. It’s hard to imagine that those feelings will not affect their future engagement, productivity and quality of work. In fact, the concerns which led to the 2019 extended strike of 48,000 UAW worker at 50 GM plants were clearly tied to an increasing loss of trust in leadership.
From a strictly rational or emotional point of view, it is easy to see how executive leadership acted as they did. It was much “safer,” easier, less expensive (short-term) and certainly less emotionally painful for GM leadership to communicate and execute the process this way. It is only when we follow our Moral Higher Voice that, even from our disparate viewpoints, we can find the common higher ground which produces the best long-term results for all affected. It should be self-evident that “all affected” includes you as a leader, unless you wish to spend much of your life’s remaining energy in futile attempts to rationalize past actions that you knew to be wrong at the time.
Integrity in Degrees?
Integrity (honesty and transparency) in communication is also ostensibly lacking here as the entire process conflicts with the public words that GM considers its employees a top priority. Whether or not the reductions were a sound strategic decision, it is hard to imagine that the lack of trust in leadership created by the process did not play a key role in the subsequent six week strike that cost GM nearly $2 billion in lost production and employees nearly $1 billion in lost wages.
However, even if we recognize the importance of integrity in communication, we often think of it and the trust it produces in terms of degrees, which is not helpful. If others do not have full trust and confidence that we will speak the truth and do the right thing, then their skepticism, to whatever degree, will produce costly hesitation and delays in execution. The associated lack of respect for our character, even if diminished by only a few “degrees,” will also eliminate the motivation and discretionary effort required for the highest quality of performance.
Many of you have likely worked in cultures characterized by this lack of trust, the fear it produces, and the related performance implications. Eventually what actually happens on the frontline in these organizations gets “massaged” so much in communication that by the time it arrives at the executive suite it bears little resemblance to reality. Senior leaders make poor decisions based on this flawed information, further eroding the already low trust in leadership, and thus ensuring that even less of the truth is communicated in the future. This self-perpetuating cycle continues until you have a lifeless culture absent of conflict, confrontation or collaboration. People have their heads down in CYA mode, trying to avoid being blamed for the downward spiral in results, even though everyone has colluded to make it inevitable.
While the root cause of this cycle is typically the lack of the Golden Rule and integrity in leadership behaviors, ultimately most everyone effectively cooperates to perpetuate this culture. How? By telling “white lies,” each of them insignificant if we think of integrity in terms of degrees. No one is telling egregious falsehoods, just withholding some of the truth here, spinning it a little there, or remaining silent and feigning agreement. People view these “small” violations of integrity as completely justified and rational (safe), and of course they remove the immediate emotional discomfort that integrity would require. They continue down this “harmless” and completely justified path until their moral compass is so corrupted that the “skills” they develop are suited only for such toxic cultures.
Absence of the Golden Rule in behavior and integrity in communication is how leaders begin the process of creating these toxic cultures, leaving whatever positional power they may have as their only remaining mechanism for influence.
People may act in minimal compliance to preserve their job because of positional power, but this requires the leader to constantly look back over their shoulder to see if anyone is actually following, and then waste enormous energy and time dealing with the inevitable consequences of their lack of moral leadership. Such dynamics ensure progress far short of the speed required in today’s markets, and an almost certain dead end or fatal crash given the leader’s backward focus: a focus required by the very culture they have created.
The Current State of Moral Leadership and Implications
The Ethics Resource Center (ERC) titled its 2011 report “Workplace Ethics in Transition,” indicating a shift unlike any seen in prior surveys, a prediction that has been validated by subsequent research. ECI’s (Ethics & Compliance Initiative) 2018 Global Business Ethics survey found that only one in five employees believed their company had a strong ethical culture, while 40% of those surveyed believed their organization’s culture to be ethically weak.
The 2020 Edelman Trust Index shows how pervasive this lack of trust is across all our institutions, including business. That’s an indication of how much potential there is for improving engagement and performance, along with a broader impact for good, with even a modest increase in moral leadership.
In LRN’s 2019 “The State of Moral Leadership in Business” report, a striking 87% of respondents believed that the need for moral leadership is now greater than ever. Only 7% said that their leaders consistently demonstrated moral leadership, and an alarming 59% thought their leader exhibited few, if any, moral leadership behaviors. 83% believed their leaders would make better decisions if they based those decisions on the Golden Rule.
There are clear performance implications in this research, as 94% of those who led with moral integrity and authority were viewed as effective in reaching their business goals, compared to only 14% of leaders who did not exhibit moral leadership.
The performance implications of moral leadership should come as no surprise given that the number one factor contributing to a loss of meaning and purpose at work is when leaders ask others to do things that conflict with their universal higher values. To ask people to set aside these values is asking the impossible, so when they succumb to management pressure and act in conflict with these values they suffer from significant guilt and stress that, to a great extent, consumes their psychic energy and renders them AWOL even when present. To ask people to disconnect from their moral values and expect anything other than high levels of cynicism, skepticism and disengagement in response is the absolute height of leadership folly.
All this research supports what we intuitively know, that in most cases it is “lower” moral behavior by leaders that is at the root cause of lower engagement and performance in our teams and organizations. Leaders should not underestimate the powerful stimulus they introduce into an organization through their example, as it is a natural law that the behavioral response of others will reflect this stimulus. The only way to get a “higher” response in engagement and performance is to lead from the higher plane of moral character and integrity. Otherwise you can expect with 100% certainty to have a culture driven primarily by unwritten CYA rules rather than by the lofty values articulated by senior executives or hung on office walls.
In summary, why pursue moral clarity and courage as a leader? Because moral leadership sets us free from endless rationalizations that consume our cerebral free space and cloud our thinking… and it frees us from the toxic emotions of stress, guilt and shame…in other words, all the things that weigh us down, hold us back and keep us trapped in a past of regret.
And it is the only foundation that produces the trust and respect required to unleash the full potential of our organizations. For in spite of all the focus on change, the foundational and most important consideration in the leadership equation remains constant: human nature and the traits which inspire others to follow.
And the more uncertain and chaotic the environment, the more critical a strong moral foundation of character, integrity and trust before anyone will follow us into the uncertain winds of change.
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