Leadership and Responsibility

A few things have happened over the last couple of weeks that have caused me to reflect on the responsibility that comes with leadership and leadership positions. I am in no doubt that leading others is a privilege, often linked to a role or position within an organisation or society and ratified by those that follow our leadership. I have taken some extra time to reflect because I wanted my comments to be considered and not a “knee-jerk” response to media reports.

Three things happened in short succession; Greenpeace had a number of its activists arrested by the Russian authorities after they tried to gain access to an oil exploration rig in the Arctic, Race for Sport created a media storm over a dressing room talk by England football manager Roy Hodgson, and I spotted a member of the crew on the oil rig I am currently working on wearing a safety related T-shirt that highlighted how valuable people are and how costly mistakes can be in this environment.

The T-shirt got me thinking of the value of leadership and our position as leaders and the cost of not treating our followers and society in general with the respect they deserve. The cost versus value debate is an important one in the leadership context and I have often thought that the accountants in any organisation appear to always know the cost of everything but the value of very little. Leadership development and executive and performance coaching always come at a price, they will cost the organisation time, money and effort whether using an external resource or in-house capability. The much more important issue concerns the value of those activities to the organisation as a whole and the cost of not doing them. When competition is fierce and economic survival is a priority can any organisation, public sector, commercial business or charity, afford poor leadership and management?

Greenpeace are undoubtedly leaders in the struggle for the environment. They may well have been self-appointed but that position has been ratified by its followers and by many world leaders who are prepared to listen to their arguments. So with that leadership role comes responsibility; responsibility to fully understand the issues, only deal in verifiable facts rather than opinion and to accept the consequences of poor judgement and decision making. In attempting to board a deep water drilling rig Greenpeace got it wrong. They put lives and the Arctic environment at risk (how would they react if they were the cause of another Deep Water Horizon incident?) and they misjudged the reaction of the general public to the arrest of their activists. They failed to appreciate the value of maintaining the moral high ground for their campaign or the cost of getting it wrong and they acted with a lack of integrity unbecoming a genuine leader in society.

Race for Sport are also self-appointed leaders in the fight against racism in sport but unlike Greenpeace their position has yet to be fully ratified. Racism remains a serious issue both in sport and our society in general and I feel that Race for Sports misjudged comments may have actually undermined their cause. Roy Hodgson made a joke, albeit a poor one, that referred to a monkey and an astronaut. Someone somewhere has decided that the joke has racist connotations and Race for Sport have been vocal in the condemnation of the England manager. They have failed to appreciate the responsibility they have to minority players to keep majority support for their cause. By speaking before thinking and then refusing to back down, they have undermined their own position in the eyes of many and lost a great deal of credibility; an essential aspect of any successful leader. By ignoring the comments of the player concerned and others much closer to the England set up they have acted with a lack of integrity, appearing to consider their own view as the only one that matters in this issue and determined to shout louder than anyone else until they get their way. Using your position of power only to further your own agenda is the definition of toxic leadership and will not benefit the cause they are supposed to serve.

Successful leadership is, and always has been, about integrity, responsibility and serving the greater good. Jim Collins, in his widely respected book “Good to Great”, talks about the window and the mirror and how great leaders take whatever steps necessary to serve the cause not themselves – an approach that requires total integrity and brutal honesty. Perhaps it is time that some of the “leaders” in our society took a long hard look in the mirror, reflected on the difference between value and cost, and started to put personal agendas aside to serve the greater good. The issues of the environment and racism, pivotal to the examples above, are too important to us all to be trivialised by the kind of self-serving misjudgement we have seen recently.

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