Does your firm's moral compass work?

designing culture leader performance reputation senior group Sep 22, 2023
The moral compass

It used to be that 'success' meant 'more'. Yet time and again, we see organisations and 'leaders' fail in that pursuit. Fail not because they stopped being skilled or competent or expert, but because they lost moral direction. 

It's hard to be good. The saints of all creeds knew this. But striving to be 'good enough', through both intent and action, succeeds in the long term. If you want to be philosophical about it, the long term means on your deathbed, when you assess your life in a flash.

Your firm's version 

In professional firms, success can too easily be narrowed down to 'more'. If you've ever tried finding out what would be 'enough' for some driven partners, you'll know how they don't see themselves ever having enough - and so never finishing their career. So the whole system is premised on getting more, which over time tightens into greed.

Systemic greed is a sign that the firm's moral compass is broken and the firm's partners are destroying its most precious asset. That asset is reputation. For a long time you can look good, working within the glow of those who established your profession's reputation, whether that is for expertise, care, accuracy, speed, honesty or relevance. Pretending to live by the demands of a reputation, while acting differently has been proven to work well! But only for a time; then the you face an existential issue. 

The Leader's dilemma

The test of a culture amongst the senior group is how they call each other on their values. The senior group is not only the senior leadership team, board or management committee but the partnership as a whole. When any member of this senior group are aware of an event that runs counter to the espoused culture and values of the firm, what do they do? 

One dynamic of leadership unfortunately is that confronting bad behaviour becomes only the leader's job. He or she is supposed to spot this and use their power to fix it. Partners are owners so ignoring value breaches is a self-defeating abrogation of their role. Inaction or apathy are active, not passive, attacks on the moral core of the firm. 

Yet for the head of the firm, such events may be utterly invisible unless inserted into their calendar for discussion. And who wants to invade that tight territory? 

The head of the firm has to simultaneously focus on the big priorities and leave space for dealing with events that may not look significant on the surface. There may not be much money involved; the behaviour may be stretching things a bit but not egregious; there may be excuses. What can you do about morally ambiguous but insignificant events that haven't yet festered into crisis? 

Multilateral leading. 

Leadership theory for organisations is still trying to shake off military and sports metaphors. Because business is like war (Sun Tzu) or a game ('Winning....'), right? These metaphors lead to a focus on singular outcomes and artificial simplicity rather than multifaceted results from addressing the real complexity. They lead to the idea of the isolated leader ('doing leadership') rather than leading as a shared, mutually supportive, continuous state of affairs. 

This shared version of leading is more complex than winning or getting more. It is more onerous. It is more mature. It is more ambiguous. But it is massively more effective. 

What multilateral leading means in practice is:

  • All of the senior group are across the fundamental theory of leading that has been proven to work for the firm. 
  • Each partner knows the two or three unique reasons others follow them. 
  • Each partner knows in what circumstances their style is most effective and steps in when needed. 
  • Each can also adapt to the circumstances, leading as their most effective colleagues would, even when it's uncomfortable. 
  • The firm's systems, including both formal meetings and the informal language of the senior group, help partners to share issues and decisions, and to help each other to grow. It's a leadership development community as well as an ideas development community. Competition faces outwards, not inwards.
  • The senior group is a community because anyone can see that they care for each other and are passionate about the firm's vision. Caring is not a contract but a continuous relationship. 

Are these criteria too idealistic or onerous?

I'd suggest that the old hierarchical tests of leadership & culture are failing us in many ways. Where we had arrows we need embracing circles. Where we left the big questions to someone 'at the top', we need to own the question throughout the organisation. And where we didn't have time for the soft stuff, we need to notice that a little time on the soft stuff now, saves oceans of time on forcing hard fixes later. 

My philosophy tutor long ago, when I was a young science student, reminded me that philosophical questions remain questions, but the process of finding answers is what brings us insight, wisdom and the celebration of life. A firm's values and culture are how its people live healthily with the big questions. They amount to a good enough answer, and as with all philosophical answers, they can only be good enough if sustained and followed through with honesty and care. 

How is all this working in your firm? What are your leaders doing about maintaining your moral compass? Are you getting the benefits of seeking good enough answers to the big questions? Does each partner see the moral compass as a personal asset and agree that it's pointing in the right direction? Perhaps a good agenda item for the next conference..... 


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