An ethical leader has the courage to accept ever-changing realities
More than ever, the topic of leadership is of global concern. Whether it be in the political, economic or social arena, the evaluation of the effectiveness of current leaders and the search for new, competent and ethical leaders, dominate public discourse.Tomes have been written on leadership, yet the perfect ingredients of what makes a good leader remain elusive. But most leadership experts, for example John Kotter and Ronald Heifetz, agree that the prime task of leadership is to facilitate the process of change.The most important question is, “What or which change?” Certainly, inspiring certain change initiatives is important. The key question is how these change initiatives are determined and what is their purpose or goal.Max DePree, previous CEO of Herman Miller and author of “Leadership Jazz,” agrees that the key goal of leadership is to orient and align people to reality. It is the most important purpose of leadership that drives the tasks that follow.It is this goal that also ties leadership directly with ethics.Let me explain: By focusing on reality, one is focusing on what is real, and therefore what is true. When I ask you to tell me the truth, I am asking you to tell me what is real, what is actual. I am asking you to align yourself with reality. Reality is the truth.Therefore, leaders who encourage and motivate others to align themselves to reality are clearly ethical. What can smack of greater ethical integrity than grappling with the truth?This, of course, is much easier said than done. For one, reality is continuously shifting as new realities arrive. This means that our ethical leader needs to continuously identify and frame new realities, which as we all know do not arrive in neat little packets.Further, reality is not the preserve of one or a few people. To really wrestle with reality requires the input of many people who can present different viewing points.This means that our ethical leader must work collaboratively with others from all domains and all parts of the organizational (or societal) hierarchy, in order to get the best approximate fix on what the new realities require.Changing realitiesLeaders who decide that they have the purchase on knowing changing realities, or who believe that they and their senior management team can in one or two fabulous meetings define other people’s realities, are clearly not dealing with reality!There is another huge challenge to committing to aligning the organization with changing realities. As we all know, many new realities are inconvenient, or uncomfortable or, worse still, downright frightening and unpalatable.The financial crisis serves as a good example. The challenge for our ethical leader lies in holding people’s feet to the fire when the new realities are not pleasant. It is much easier – and safer – for our aspiring leader to create a more rosy reality, or collude with many by dismissing those realities that are difficult to tackle.One of the most unfortunate requirements of leaders is that they create inspiring and rosy visions. Well, maybe reality at first blush is not that inspiring or rosy. However, if we deal with it immediately, rather than deferring it or denying its actuality, the chances that we can change it into a rosy future is greatly improved.Of course, this calls for leadership courage. So leaders who are willing to grapple with changing realities, and are committed to building adaptive organizations, need courage. Alas, this trait is not discussed much in the leadership literature. and certainly not much in MBA or executive development classrooms.One might ask to what end should leadership be so preoccupied with reality, and so intent on mobilizing the organization (or society) to change so that it aligns itself with changing realities. To answer my earlier question, all change initiatives should be driven by changing realities. Change initiatives that have not been reality tested are simply a waste of time and a sad distraction from the truth.Effective leadership is measured by the extent to which a leader or leaders have created an adaptive organization. An adaptive organization is one in which the culture promotes continuous learning and change. An adaptive organization is one in which employees feel empowered and motivated to keep reinventing themselves, and hence reinvent the organization. An adaptive organization is one not afraid of reality or the truth.A truly adaptive organization led by people who have a keen eye on reality will not become an Enron, a Tyco, or a financial services organization that abuses its mortgage borrowers.The ethics of leadership depends on the courage to embrace ever-changing realities. Once leaders take their eyes off reality they and their followers are snagged by the ethical slippery slope and the path downhill is destined to begin.Annabel Beerel, president and CEO of the New England Women’s Leadership Institute, works as a consultant on ethical leadership and is author of “Leadership and Change Management.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.