Why Leaders Must Defend The Soul Of Their Organization Above All Else
Leadership is difficult, there’s no question about it. It requires you to make difficult decisions, choose between the lesser of two evils, and ultimately try to balance short-term results with long-term implications.
We live in a society that demands performance above all else. As a result, modern leaders have proven that they’re willing to accept just about anything so long as performance expectations are met, money continues to flow in, elections are won, and the status quo remains unchanged.
Every leader has constituents that he or she must satisfy, whether it’s shareholders or voters. Their very position, compensation, and ego depend on it.
However, if 2017 has taught us anything, it’s that leaders from all walks of life have been all too willing to turn a blind eye to, or in some cases actively aid and abet, terrible behaviors to further the goals of their organization.
The examples are too many to ignore: from the plights of companies like Uber, to the American political scene, to the #metoo phenomenon, it’s clear that we have crossed a line as a society.
Leaders, it seems, have signaled to the world that nothing is more important than winning. And the blame doesn’t stop at the top. Almost all of us have been complicit in some fashion. We have all been willing to compromise our moral code or turn a blind eye at one point or another to win.
It’s time that this stopped. It’s time that leaders understood that they must defend the soul of their organization above all else.
Performance matters, but not at any cost
As a CEO, my mandate is to create value for my shareholders. There are many ways to do that, both short-term and long-term. The key is to find the right balance to create something sustainable.
After BodeTree pivoted to focus on the franchising industry, I was introduced to a world unlike anything I had ever experienced. Franchising, it seems, is a world of side deals, behind-the-scenes negotiations, and big money.
Like many industries where commissions are high, and big fees flow freely, there is a tendency for greed to set in. All too often, the allure of a huge payout overshadows everything. As a result, personal interests almost always come before the interests of the people buying a franchise.
I saw firsthand how many in the industry claimed to be working in the interest of others, all the while remaining steadfast in the pursuit of their personal interests. I knew that our organization had to be different if we were going to succeed in the long-term.
I wanted our newly combined organization to be different. I wanted us to have a soul and focus on the interests of our franchisor clients and the candidates we ultimately sell our products to.
The hard reality is this meant that we would not make as much money as some of the other groups we compete with. That was a bitter pill for many of the team to swallow, but at the end of the day, I believe that our approach will pay off in the long-term.
We have to stand for something, and as the CEO my job is to defend the soul of our organization in everything we do.
If you stand for nothing, what will you fall for?
I don’t think leaders embroiled in the controversies sweeping the nation necessarily set out to be a force of evil. In fact, most probably thought they were doing the right thing by pushing for the next win.
A business, just as a life, is defined not by any single momentous decision, but rather by the sum of all of the little decisions and actions we engage in throughout the day.
Small compromises build upon themselves until you find yourself in a position you never thought possible. That’s how good people end up defending or supporting evil things.
It’s a trend I first noticed around the time of the last election, but have continued to see play out in all facets of life. I blame our tendency to look at decisions as always choosing the lesser of two evils.
The logic is as follows: X is bad, but it’s preferable to Y, so I’ll go along with it because what choice do I have?
While this may seem like a practical approach, it represents a race to the bottom. To quote a line from Hamilton, “If you stand for nothing, what will you fall for?”
At some point, our society has to move away from this destructive mode of thinking and take a stand. It’s intellectually lazy and morally unacceptable to always fall back on the old defense of supporting the “lesser of two evils.”
In my case, I was forced to choose between compromising my company’s culture, or making less money. It would have been easy to choose the lesser of the two evils, but instead I chose to take a stand.
It is our cultural, moral, and personal imperative to be better than our base impulses, and we must look to our business, political, and spiritual leaders to set the tone.
We must have the courage to say that enough is enough and be willing to take our short-term losses if need be. This is the only way to maintain our integrity and preserve our institutions for the future.
Remember that you reap what you sow
There are two issues at hand here. The first is the ethical obligation of leaders to stand for what is right. The second is for leaders to take a longer-term view of success. Remember, you reap what you sow.
The relentless pursuit of short-term wins above all else, whether economic or political, will lead to an inevitable collapse of any organization.
Strategy is key, particularly for business leaders. What does it matter to win the battle only to lose the war? We must build sustainable cultures that aren’t afraid to tackle the difficult problems.
Consider the case of an employee who generates the majority of a company’s revenue, yet whose personal behavior conflicts with the culture of the company or common decency.
Historically, leaders have been too willing to defend that person because of their economic impact. They’ve preferred to sweep things under the rug, rather than take the hit in the short-term by putting a stop to the relationship.
In essence, they’re gambling; hoping and praying that things remain under covers so that they can maintain the status quo. Of course, this is tantamount to a farmer wrecking the future of his land in the pursuit of maintaining next year’s bounty.
This must stop. Leaders must learn to defend the very soul of their organization, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it is key to creating long-term value.
If we fail to change our behaviors, we’ll wake up in a few years to see that there is nothing left of the organizations and institutions we worked so hard to build and support.