A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a friend of mine (we’ll call him Bart). He made a bold claim: he said that the questionable morals of some wealthy people are justified because, in Bart’s view, that’s what it takes to become wealthy. The ends justify the means. We allow morally objectionable things to go unchallenged and unquestioned. We allow people who behave badly to rise in the ranks — and we justify their behavior along the way — because that’s what it takes to make it to the top (or what’s required to stay there). Even though he doesn’t think it’s right and he doesn’t agree with it, Bart accepts, “That’s just the way it is.”
A week later, another friend tried to tell me that if a company or politician or industry lies and misrepresents information for their personal gain, then the one at fault isn’t them for lying, but the person who fell for it because they didn’t recognize the lie, do their own research, and act accordingly — the classic “buyer beware” theory.
Forgive me, but I think both of them are full of crap. Rather than holding “successful” people to a moral and legal standard, we celebrate their dishonesty and deceptions as clever? Really?
I started watching the show “Suits” on Netflix the other day. It’s a highly-regarded show with an 8.4/10 rating on IMBD. And all the celebrated moments of the show’s pilot episode are based on lies and deception and acts of trickery which are comically justified and couched as the ends justifying the means. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a good show for entertainment value, that’s not the problem. The problem is when we bring the entertainment value into real life and call it acceptable, or worse, normal.
Now, if you’re a cutthroat law firm competing against other cutthroat law firms and believe it’s an eat-or-be-eaten, deceive-or-be-deceived kinda world, then I suppose I sound silly and naive. But am I? Well, if I think I’m going to change the morality of the legal profession via a single blog post too few actually read, I suppose I am.
But do people really want to live and operate in a world, industry or organization where deceptions are not just permitted but celebrated? Where “buyer beware” means I can say and do anything, and if you aren’t smart enough to know better, then shame on you (it’s not my fault you fell for it)?
In my experience the vast majority of people would answer “no.” And I think Socrates would agree.
Socrates once said that “the unexamined life isn’t worth living.” More specifically he said: “living a life where you live under the rules of others, in a continuous routine without examining what you actually want out of it is not worth living.”
I think we could take Socrates’ comments a little too far in analysis, but I think the bottom line is that we want to live consciously and we want to have agency in our lives and to live the life we seek, free from harm, manipulation, and unreasonable constraints. That goes for the workplace too.
If we as leaders seek for our people to simply follow and do as we say and, in doing so, believe we have the freedom to bend the rules for our own gain, regardless of the impact on others, we aren’t leading at all. We have control for sure. Power? No doubt. But are we leading? Not so much.
In my last post, I talked about vertical coaching, and this is another aspect of it. Vertical coaching inspires the examined life up and down the organization, allowing for influences otherwise held out of the conversation.
I believe most leaders’ intentions are good, even if their actions appear to be less so. And in fostering the conversations that allow for understanding up and down the chain, encouraging contribution of ideas from levels of the organization you may seldom (if ever) interact with, and providing people a seat at a table when they otherwise would never be in the room, you are quite literally fostering the examined life of your organization.
Most people, ironically, don’t need to be right, but they do need to be seen and respected. When we feel we have no — or too little — control and influence over the things that drive our lives, we are uninspired and fail to fire on all cylinders.
As for leaders, by engaging in the inter-level/inter-rank conversations vertical coaching fosters, we are less likely to fall off the path of morality (even if that just means being disconnected from our deeper teams), because we will stay connected to the people whose lives are deeply affected by our decisions.
Vertical coaching exposes downward how decisions are made and why, the impact those decisions have on all levels, and the potential price paid if those decisions aren’t the right ones. All before things get set in stone. And it works in reverse, too. The insights, questions, and perspectives that flow upward allow for better, more informed and more effective decisions to be made at the top.
What’s also interesting is that vertical coaching can reveal a high cost of questionable decisions made by incompetent leaders: the price might be that the team won’t comply, and they’ll quit. Or the price may be less-than-optimal performance from a disillusioned team. And wouldn’t it be better to understand such impacts when you still have time to adjust and respond to them?
There’s an element of truth to what Bart is saying, however. The game is corrupt. It has been for years, perhaps forever. It doesn’t foster honesty, integrity, or high-level values, especially if someone stands to earn a ridiculous amount of money or power or influence. When you try to play fairly, you’ll be taken advantage of. There’s a reason “nice guys finish last.”
At the organizational level, however, you can do what can’t as easily be done at the societal level: you can question all that. You can demand better of yourselves and allow your team to hold you accountable at the top. You can summon the courage to ask, “What is it that my leadership is asking for and why? What is my leadership asking for from me? Have I stopped to ask myself if the game has pushed me into a perspective or set of values that isn’t shared by the folks who are expected to execute those decisions?”
Once you start asking these kinds of questions, you won’t be able to unsee the potential for your organization.
In the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., “Every now and then a [person’s] mind is stretched by a new idea or sensation, and never shrinks back to its former dimensions.”
If you’re feeling discouraged by poor leadership and incongruent values in your organization, consider vertical coaching as a tool to foster the conversations desperately needing to be had. If you need some, I can help. To get started, contact me today.