Today’s Leaders: Compassion Without Courage

Joseph O’Shea was my boss in my first “permanent” job after college. Joe had been a crusty ex-union buster in the textile mills of South Carolina. He had a reputation for kicking butts and taking names, as he liked to say. Many a fellow employee lost his breakfast worrying about an upcoming meeting with Mr. O’Shea.

Joe called a meeting to announce the company was shifting to a participative management philosophy. The idea of Joe being participative was about as likely as Attila the Hun being kindhearted. But, Joe was a good soldier. If the company wanted managers to be more participative, he’d give it his best shot. We were reassured the world as we knew it was not about to come crashing down, when Joe ended the meeting with “Our division WILL have participative management. And, you’ll participate, by God, or I’ll fire your a_ _!”

We have seen a major transformation in the concept of what it means to be “the leader.” The Joe O’Shea model of leader as stern, corporate parent has been altered to one of leader as supporter, enabler, even partner. As workers have increasingly demonstrated the maturity and competence to operate effectively with limited supervision in a brain-based economy, leaders unable to let go of the reins of coercive power have been replaced by leaders who view their relationship with associates as one of liberator, barrier remover, facilitator and mentor.

The byproduct of this kinder leader has resulted in a lower fear level in organizations giving rise to greater creativity and improved quality. Employee inclusion has produced more employee commitment. A focus on diversity, customer service, coaching, and accountability have helped leaders better understand the power of empowerment and the promise of balancing employee confidence with unit performance. Yet, even as leaders “let go” there remains a dearth of leaders willing to also “stand up.”

The new leader has also been inundated with the many ways they can violate employee rights and infringe on the sanctity of good public relations. As they have been instructed in act like a leader, they have been informed to think like a lawyer. Many have learned to surrender to unrealistic demands (“under the banner of some cause”) when their consciences scream for “acting on principle.”

Too many leaders would rather lose sleep than lose face. Such timidity has bred a caution of controversy that has spread beyond complex employee relations issues.  The dearth of value-based decisions has left too many organizations with a “character deficit.”

John Ellis in his article “Strategy” in the October, 2002, issue of Fast Company tells well:

“Here’s what real business leaders do. They go out and rally the troops, plant the flag, and make a stand. They confront hostile audiences and the deal with the press. If the issue is confidence, they conduct themselves confidently. If the issue is trust, they make their company’s business transparent. If the issue is character, they tell the truth. They do not shirk responsibility; they assume command. Because a fundamental ingredient of business success is leadership.

And the granular stuff of leadership is courage, conviction, and character.”

The word “character” in the Greek language means “engraved.”  It is the other end of the continuum from “situational ethics” and it is the antithesis of the “morality for the moment.”  Enrons aren’t created by greedy leaders. They are created by spineless leaders reluctant to stand up for character rather than sit still for consent. Sure there was greed. But, there had to have been a lot more acquiescence than avarice.

Today’s leaders have come a long way from the autocratic, compassionless O’Shea’s of yesteryear. But too many leaders have miles to go to demonstrate the courage needed for today’s complex times.

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