Wannabe CEO? You’d Better Be Good.
My message to anyone who wants to be a CEO or business leader is: there is a difference between change and adaptiveness. And between being adaptive and being good. And you’d better understand that.
In simple terms, adaptiveness implies the creation of an organisation that is able to self-evolve in the context of emerging internal and external needs. It requires creating space for ideas; institutionalising routines, norms and rituals to generate organizational learning and productive tension with the operational system; and processes to experiment and scale innovations not only in terms of how to reach goals, but also how to organize.
Being good implies morality. It means ensuring that an organization brings together an entrepreneurial community that co-elevates to enable both individual development and growth, and societal flourishing. It requires standing up for the integrity of the corporate character and ensuring that organizational virtues are embedded in and embodied by all elements of the organizational system.
Adaptiveness is needed in most businesses these days to ensure viability and survival. Conversely, goodness is required in all businesses to live up to the needs, responsibilities and expectations of today’s society and future generations. And leaders need the practical wisdom to manage both.
We’re not leaders, because we rule. We’re leaders because we truly care.
Dilemma? What happens when the need for adaptiveness clashes with the need to be good?
- I would suggest the answer is clear: goodness always comes first. Any organizational choice or decision must be qualified based on the ultimate primate of a positive systemic contribution. Whereas in my experience, in practice things are never so clearly cut- and “truth” is seldom so easily found. So I reckon this is where we need to develop moral character and wisdom, ie the capacity to appreciate all options, assess moral implications, and make sound “abductive” judgments. Plus, the humility and pragmatism to reevaluate our choices and correct course based on (collective) reflection and learning.
Is being good universal? Is what’s good for me automatically good for everybody else in the world, now and in the future? If not, who says what’s good? Is good even a theoretically valid category?
- This is a great question, but I think it also might be the wrong question: Firstly, I reckon an unexamined life is not worth living? As humans, we must ask “what a good life is”, sooner or later. We are driven by that perennial wonder about why to act at all (beyond our mere survival) and how to live our lives well. Why are we here, and who are we…
- Secondly, I think we must realise that we cannot achieve a good life by ourselves. We are primed for social living as a species and our very identity and flourishing is dependent on quality connections with others, and often on our service TO others. As Alfred Adler suggested, I paraphrase, if you have not yet found the purpose of your life: serve others!
- Hence, I think we should rather ask: what is our shared “telos”? What world do we want? How can we live a good life together, and who would we need to become to make it happen. What are the necessary boundaries of our individual freedom, and why? What is the ideal configuration of social order, and how does it manifest itself? What is the meaning and extent of solidarity between us? Getting there might require universal norms, or not. It certainly will require dialogue. Our very age demands for interdependence in society more than ever, to face the interdependent and entangled complex challenges around us. However, I think it is more important to hold that question together— what it means to live a good life together. Starting to discard the concept of goodness because we are doubtful of its universalism might be the wrong end of the stick?
Dogma? Your reference to humility and pragmatism is very important at this point, because thinking that is based on the “good” as an absolute value is always in danger of becoming dogmatic and uncompromising. Idealists are sometimes particularly ruthless, towards others and towards themselves. Pragmatism knows the meaning of action, aligns itself with it and is content with small steps. Consistency makes the difference and it prevents pragmatism from slipping into arbitrariness or adaptation. It used to be called “epikie”, cleverness, also a virtue.
- I do believe there are a number of important considerations. Firstly, I will argue that what good is doesn’t necessarily imply absolutes. That would be typical of a rational Kantian morality, but not of a virtue approach, or “dialogic ethics”. Secondly, I certainly see a value of pragmatism in ethics, yet not when it is relativism in disguise. I would suggest we should always adjust our actions to a contingent situation, and learn progressively, but this doesn’t necessarily imply that we change our virtues or values based on contingency. Relativists and pragmatists might quickly lose their moral grounding — once a red line has been crossed, it quickly ceases to be one.
- That said, any faith becomes problematic when it turns fanatic, and it takes wisdom to choose when to stand our ground and when to yield… yet still I believe sometimes we might need to be audaciously bold rather than go satisfied by smaller and more convenient steps. William Sloan Coffin puts it this way: “Said prophet Amos, ‘Let justice’ — not charity — ‘roll down like mighty waters!’ Business today has often made pragmatism its religion, and ended up often mindlessly pursuing short-term profit. Hence, I’d love to find a few die-hard idealists who stem the decline… I have a feeling the world might be better off ;-)
Dignity at the core! I imagine an idealism that focuses on the recognition of human dignity. However, it is not about humans as perfect or to-be-perfected beings, who are rational and superior to other living beings. For me, this image of man is as obsolete as profit orientation — and both are related to each other. Relationships, organizations and societies become humane or more humane when they give space to people’s strengths and weaknesses, in other words when they help freedom to develop instead of suppressing it, and when they do not exploit vulnerability but respond with empathy and solidarity. That is my idealism and it is not aloof. It “works” in almost every situation and could also fundamentally change a corporate culture. An ethical change management…
- Yes! And maybe a state that isn’t there to just defend individual freedom and safeguard a social contract, but to foster and facilitate a mutually responsible society? Not a state that is primarily solidaric, but one that primarily enables and supports solidarity between people within a participative community? I feel we shouldn’t just make the state responsible for our freedom to develop — that could quickly become a liberal yet highly ineffective position — what matters to most people is personal fulfillment in a community of peers with whom we have quality relationships. Hence, we might need a society that provides its members with skills, virtues and opportunities to master life’s challenges and develop fruitful flourishing relationships with others. Hence, rather than individual freedom we might need moral character, a sense of belonging and common identity, trust and solidarity, and decentralised organic communities of coelevating peers. This could also mitigate a tendency of neoliberal states to proliferate controls in the name of freedom, and mistake redistribution with quality of life… In a word, moving from an individualistic ontology towards a relational one, without falling into the collectivist trap.
Trust matters! I think ultimately it comes down to trust, Otti: leaders who are capable of trusting their people to do what’s required to adapt, people trusting their leadership that they are on the right path with aligned values and purpose and customers trusting the organisations that are adapting to serve their needs without undermining their values.
- Yes, I certainly believe that trust is one important organizational virtue. That said, I admittedly have come to believe there is a difference between trust and wisdom. Trust in my experience certainly helps with supporting the development of others and overcoming a bias towards control, ie adaptiveness, whereas i believe wisdom is adding another dimension: it requires morally mature judgment and decision-making, ie a capacity to integrate different requirements and perspectives, and the active contribution towards a wider ecosystem. So i guess i could be trusting without being wise ;-)
- And ideally we need collective wisdom- rather than some heroic characters seeking to carry — like Atlas — the world on their shoulders.
From: “Sunday Morning Thoughts on LinkedIn” — I will report some of the interesting LinkedIn dialogues here, paraphrased and applying the Chatham House Rule — trying to protect some of the sentiments, thoughts, and above all our stimulating discussions from oblivion ;-)