What impact do you want to have as a leader?

Katleen De Stobbeleir

By Katleen De Stobbeleir

Professor of Leadership

11 February 2021

Source: Management Team (01/02/2021)

COVID-19 is a great lesson in humility... it’s the kind of experience that forces you to draw breath and reflect on who you are as a leader and the difference you want to make. After all, it’s all too easy to think that you can't have any kind of impact. If the past few months have taught us just one lesson, it is that we all have a responsibility: if you don't wash your hands, you are putting yourself and others in danger. Coincidentally, individual responsibility and impact are also the themes of the last chapter of ‘Making Your Way’, the new book written by Marion Debruyne and myself.

Unfortunately, when we read the papers, we cannot help but note that leaders sometimes focus very one-sidedly on their own careers or the financial success of their organisation, without putting enough effort into developing their moral compass. But it’s actually very simple: anyone who diverts money to an account in Panama, reassuring himself that it’s all perfectly legal from a fiscal point of view, doesn’t stop to think about the fact that someone else will ultimately pay the price. This demonstrates that everyone's choices and actions – no matter how large or how small your role – have a significant impact on the bigger picture. So the question is, what difference do you want to make?

Optimism is a moral duty

War, disease, poverty, abuse, pollution... Enough bad news to tip even the biggest optimist into the depths of despair. But Karl Popper and Immanuel Kant were right. Optimism is a moral duty. Being optimistic does not mean that you permanently view the world through rose-tinted glasses, blind to dangers and problems. That would be irresponsible, but so is pessimism. “Being an optimist isn’t about knowing that life used to be worse. It’s about knowing how life can get better. And that’s what really fuels our optimism,” say Bill & Melinda Gates. An optimist sees the world in perspective, is grateful for progress and knows that he is on his way to an even better place. The fundamental belief that you can have a positive impact on the world generates creativity and progress.

It goes without saying that we can't change the world alone. But you can still be the change that you wish to see in the world. Take small actions in your own life and encourage others to do the same. In this way, you can create a domino effect that might eventually affect the whole world. Think that sounds a little too idealistic? A teenage girl has proven the opposite. “We can’t just continue living as if there was no tomorrow, because there is a tomorrow. That is all we are saying.” This is the simple – and somewhat uncomfortable – truth told by a teenage girl with Asperger syndrome, who nobody had heard of before August 2018. A girl who swapped school for the square outside the Swedish parliament, where she called for more action for the climate. Of course, not every sixteen-year-old will be able to turn the world upside down like Greta Thunberg. But if there's one thing we can learn from her, it is this: it's never too early to think about the difference you want to make.

The path of least resistance

There’s no need to start living like a saint. Feel free to make mistakes, but learn from them. And above all, realise that losing your integrity often happens in small steps. In his biography ‘Blind Ambition’, John Dean – White House counsel to President Nixon – describes how he was quickly promoted and very gradually drawn into a spiral of unethical behaviour. The story ends with his conviction and imprisonment for his role in the Watergate scandal. Should we regard him as a ‘bad person’? He was actually just an inexperienced leader who quickly climbed to a position of power without being prepared for it, gradually losing all sense of right and wrong.

In our current turbulent climate, leaders without a strong moral compass will struggle. Throughout your (leadership) career, you will need to learn how to make ethically informed decisions. The path of least resistance often looks tempting. Taking credit for a colleague's hard work, remaining silent in the face of questionable practices, using your position to further your own interests and so on. You may even be able to justify that small (or not-so-small) trip to the dark side in a rational way. You've spent a long time struggling in the shadows to get where you are today, right? And if nobody else is telling the Emperor he's not wearing any clothes, why would you? But two wrongs don't make a right. Research by Vikas Anand and Blake Ashforth into the psychology behind immoral behaviour shows that even the smallest 'sin' can escalate to downright unethical and immoral behaviour if this choice is repeated and rationalised. Rationalisation is the worst enemy of integrity, by a long shot. Convincing ourselves that something is right works like a tranquilliser. It has a numbing effect and prevents us from feeling pain or guilt.

Of course, there is a lot of discussion about what is good and what isn't. Although losing your integrity can be a slow process, so is preserving your integrity. Being ethical isn't black or white. All you can do is constantly try to develop greater ethical awareness. If we know one thing, it is that doing good involves more than just avoiding doing something bad. Yvon Chouinard, the founder of the sustainable outdoor clothing brand Patagonia, put it this way: “If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.” The choice is simple: are you contributing to the solution or to the problem? There is no middle way.

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Katleen De Stobbeleir

Katleen De Stobbeleir

Professor of Leadership