Leadership, in our age, implies a non-coercive mode of direction-giving action. It’s an idea that is rooted in two vital principles of moral and political philosophy from the Enlightenment Era. The first principle is the principle of autonomy, i.e., that all human beings deserve to be treated with dignity, as ends, never as means, and that they are most fully human insofar as they act as free moral agents. The second principle stipulates that the proper political system for a human society, thus conceived, is the liberal democratic state.
When we explicitly conceptualize leadership in this way, we are naturally led to consider the central importance of communication practices. They must support an open, inclusive process of conversation that enables all parties to express their ideas, points of views, and concerns, and to argue for their preferred course of action. All parties must have the opportunity to be heard. They must be equally ready to answer questions, explain their views, and to provide reasons to support their recommended course of action.
These same normative expectations distinguish the culture of an organization in which the dignity of all its people is respected. The tricky thing in an incorporated enterprise, whether for-profit or not-for-profit, is that management is not only authorized, but duty-bound to exercise an executive prerogative, which at times limits or curtails democratic process in favor of timely and prudent action. As employees, we implicitly accept and defer to this formal authority; it is a constraint on our freedom in exchange for a salary.
Extending principles of political philosophy and the liberal democratic state to corporations may or may not seem necessary or desirable. Some will argue that corporations must comply with law, but beyond that they are on their own, right? Perhaps, but if we regard these principles as fundamental expressions of our nature, normative not only in the moral and political sphere, but also in the sphere of human development, then we may recognize their normative value in promoting organizational health and sustainable performance.
The Golden Rule and Basic Human Needs
In an increasingly global world of commerce and communications, enterprises operate and have effects for good or ill beyond nation-state boundaries. Although it has become fashionable to see “velocity” and “disruption” as positive ideas insofar as they suggest forces of innovation, we must moderate this brashness when it risks offending or alienating peoples and cultures. This applies equally to political, economic, social, and organizational change. When people feel heard, respected, and free to co-determine their destiny, peace prevails.
That is why I pin the “future of humankind” to leadership and leader development in my title. We are all able to help or hinder the cause of peace and prudent economic development in the world through our actions as leaders. When we think globally and act locally, we act with sensitivity to the place, its people, their values and culture, their identity. When we act with propriety, an “old-fashioned” word given renewed meaning by Wendell Berry, we act as if we are not here alone. We find reason to care about others.
We can ground such shared normative assumptions of what we owe to one another in moral themes that arose long before the Enlightenment (18th Century). Indeed, they emerged all over the world in antiquity – in Persia, China, India, and in the Greco-Roman world. A good example of this moral common ground is an ethic we today refer to as the Golden Rule. Earlier versions of it can be found in Confucianism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and in the philosophy of ancient Greece. It’s obviously had broad appeal and resonance.
It can be traced to the “Axial Age,” between 800 and 200 BCE, when we witnessed the birth of the great religions and the emergence of classic Greek philosophy. All of these systems of belief held some version of the Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It was a period when peoples and civilizations were beginning to encounter one another, and this gave them reason to give more thought to how they might be able to coexist. Some chose war, but most also found reason to recognize the humanity of others.
Even now, and in spite of the events of September 11th, it is the generally accepted norm of the Golden Rule that we will invoke when expressing moral outrage. It seems, therefore, that the articulation of dignity, autonomy, and liberal democratic practices of governance are grounded in something fundamental to human nature and basic human needs. In a variety of cultures, a consensus norm arose in the Axial Age, i.e., that we treat strangers with respect, even as guests. We recognized that we are not alone as persons or peoples.
Based on this brief, scattered, historical sketch of the origins of social and moral norms, we can see why extensive research into organizational engagement has found that the central value all employees want to see demonstrated is fairness. When we believe, based on experience, that we’ll be given equal opportunities for desirable assignments, for advancement and recognition, and that there is fairness in evaluation and compensation, then we’re more likely to form bonds of trust and loyalty with our organization.
We might argue that the job of leaders is to create these conditions. It’s a job that is both more important and more challenging to realize today because we are operating in flatter, faster-moving organizations, and we depend upon more diverse markets for our customers and our talent (regionally, culturally, and generationally). This is the context in which our emerging leaders (mostly Millennials) must find their way, often with fewer resources, less time, and more concerns about job security as compared to their predecessors.
It is with these conditions in mind, that we designed our Emerging Leader Development (ELD) Program. We encourage you to check it out and also to learn more about the Leader Identity Questionnaire (LIQ), a multi-rater assessment tool created to help emerging leaders realize their aspirational identity as leaders, and to make a difference in the world!
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 These, of course, are also the same principles that influenced the thought of our founding fathers in the United States of America, and that are pervasively evidenced in our Bill of Rights and the Constitution.
 This historical framing of the origin of the world’s major religions and philosophies was proposed by the famous German philosopher and psychiatrist, Karl Jaspers.