Warren Buffett once said, “Pick out associates whose behavior is better than yours and you’ll drift in that direction.” The insight is relevant to personal development, and to the manner in which organizations design and deliver their ethics training and leadership programs.
The idea of imitation, or “mimesis,” as the ancient Greeks had it, has been a critical part of philosophers’ thinking about moral development — and the effects of people in power on those under them — since the time of Aristotle, 2,500 years ago. What the Greek philosopher argued is the basis for Buffett’s statement — people learn to behave morally not just by knowing something but by imitating their superiors’ behaviors. By practicing those behaviors they become habits. Over time, the habits turn into traits of excellence, morality and personal power — which is what virtue literally means.
Part of that sounds much like cutting-edge corporate learning philosophy. A good learning environment is more than just giving employees knowledge. It’s about changing the way people act — practicing new behaviors and reinforcing them over time with a variety of experiences so they become ways of working that align with new processes, strategies or technologies.
If leaders know this — and if there is a strong overlap between the traditional understanding of how people become virtuous and more recent insights into how people learn something effectively — why is so much of ethics training about providing knowledge of rules and regulations and so little about practicing the behaviors that can create a virtuous organization? Why is so much of leadership development about decision-making and so little about how leaders influence the moral lives of their organizations and people?
Ethics training needs to become more about effective leadership; and leadership development programs need to incorporate focused practice of the behaviors that can help to create a virtuous organization.
Leaders’ Moral Influence
One of the difficulties in making a case that leaders shape the moral culture of their organizations — a culture that influences employees’ behavior far more than corporate statements about values and ethics — is that it involves the accumulation of individual influences; it is hard to point to any one occurrence or any one person. But like the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, there may come a point when an organization’s culture cannot bear the weight of leadership behaviors that are not based in virtue.
Consider the 2009 National Business Ethics Survey from the Ethics Resource Center. One of the report’s key findings is that top managers’ actions drive an ethical culture in a company and have a significant impact on outcomes. The report found that, among employees in organizations with weak ethical cultures, 76 percent have observed misconduct, while this has happened for only 39 percent of employees of companies with strong ethical cultures. Fifteen percent of those from weak cultures felt pressured to commit misconduct, and 43 percent failed to report misconduct, compared with 4 percent and 28 percent, respectively, of employees working in a strong ethical culture.
“We like to believe,” the report concludes, “that, as adults, we make decisions independently and are far beyond succumbing to peer pressure. But social science research tells us that is simply not the case. Study after study confirms it: the vast majority of people act based on the circumstances in their environment and the standards set by their leaders and peers, even if it means compromising their personal moral ideals.”
To get at a deeper sense of virtuous leadership, however, one has to move beyond the idea of behaviors that constitute moral misconduct — breaking rules or laws — to consider those that negatively affect employees’ attitudes, engagement and relationships, often through breaches of trust or actions that undermine the basic dignity and worth of employees as human beings. Understanding this sense of virtuous leadership can be achieved in part by considering stories from one’s own career, perhaps when a superior left you bewildered or dispirited.
Kurt Olson, vice president of talent management and leadership development at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, performed quantitative and qualitative research for his doctoral dissertation in 2009 on virtuous leadership and its effects on employee engagement. Olson was working for a different company at the time, and one of the stories he heard while gathering information came from a manager working for someone who was brilliant in technical knowledge, but whose leadership style was characterized by yelling, public ridiculing of his team, and a tendency to micromanage and to solve technical problems himself rather than giving people time to learn and solve problems themselves.
Over time, Olson said the manager began to realize that he was beginning to treat his own teams in similar ways. “I hate who I’m becoming,” the manager told Olson. “My boss treats me [poorly] and places demands on me that cause me to treat my team badly. I’ve worked with him so long that I’ve learned how to deal with his poor people style. However, now that I’ve got my own team, I don’t like who I am with them. I don’t like who I’m becoming as a leader, and I don’t know how much longer I can stay in this group.”
For this manager it wasn’t misconduct or illegality that had become the final straw, nor the general culture in his organization. It was the imitation problem: he was mimicking the negative leadership behaviors of the person with the most influence on him in the company.
The Leadership Development Disconncet
If leaders have this kind of influence on the ethical culture in their organizations, leadership development should focus on encouraging the leadership behaviors that result in a positive influence. Ethics training also should focus on virtuous behaviors.
One obstacle is that virtues are not rules one can learn, pass a test on and be done with. Learning to behave virtuously involves applying experience in ways that may change in different contexts.
Another factor is leaders’ tendency to prize their ability to make tough decisions that stress short-term business gain over long-term people stewardship. Another story Olson gathered was from a woman who had been successful in her organization and whose boss had told her she was being groomed for a top executive position. Then the bottom dropped out: her boss became critical of her work and brought in someone else as a management layer between them. When the call came that she had been demoted, it came from HR, not the boss.
“The interesting thing about this story is that the executive in this case would probably not have seen his behavior as something involving an ethical issue,” Olson said. “He would have seen it as a business decision. Leaders sometimes rationalize their actions in that context and forget the context that has to do with their commitments and the expectations they have set with their people.”
Tad Waddington, author of Lasting Contribution and CEO of a consulting company of the same name, supports the idea that leaders strongly influence the ethical culture of organizations, but is cautious about how virtue can be taught. “Traditional leadership development saw leaders as a means for turning people into profit,” Waddington said. “But this is a different world now, one in which much higher percentages of people are knowledge workers. More people are higher up Maslow’s hierarchy today, so leaders influence not just net worth but self-worth. In that context, leaders have to be the means for turning virtue into value.”
The caution, however, is about how learning professionals can design programs and curriculums to help leaders create value from virtue. “Only some aspects of virtuous leadership can be taught in the sense that we might think about teaching science,” Waddington said. “The rest has to be learned through experience of observing others and imitating their behaviors.” Learning in this case is more like the way artists traditionally studied with a master — learning first to copy classic works, then working closely with a teacher to mimic design and brush strokes. Only then would an artist be qualified to strike out on his or her own.
Merging leadership development and ethics training in a way that emphasizes virtuous leadership is a challenge. But its importance will only increase, especially as the economy improves and gives employees more choices about whom they want to work for.
Employee retention is high today, but that is artificial because of the slowdown in hiring. As competition for talent increases in coming years, companies with virtuous leaders and highly ethical cultures may enjoy an advantage.
Craig Mindrum is a writer and CEO of Mindrum Northstrong, a consultancy specializing in talent, change, leadership and ethics. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.