Thursday, January 31, 2013

Lead from the Widest Circle First

I am going out on a limb with this and my previous post, as I'm delving into a leadership topic that, outside of religious or spiritually-centered leadership literature, is generally avoided: namely, love.

Certainly it's nothing new from a human resources perspective to state that sincere praise, recognition, public acknowledgement and the like are generally of greater motivational value than money for employees.  But in a business context we rarely refer to this management behavior as "love" since that's a bit too woo-woo and mushy, not to mention it might be confused with the romantic notion, which is a slippery slope in the work environment.

Nevertheless, in an organizational leadership context, if my actions are governed by love, I will be an exceptional leader. 

What does that mean, exactly?  I believe love requires action.  It must be demonstrated, not simply "felt" or "expressed."  An organization's strategy means nothing if it does not allocate its resources -- time, money and operations -- to its strategy.  Simply stating what its strategy is (much like an individual saying "I love you") is meaningless if it isn't backed by aligned action.

In my last post, Poems in a Drawer, I wrote about the connection between love and leadership on the one-on-one level, using the example of my father.  When we love others, we want them to fulfill their greatest potential and we take specific action in support of that outcome.

But a second aspect of love in leadership, beyond the one-on-one, is a concept that often falls into the category of "business ethics," "sense of public responsibility," or "serving the greater good."  Many times it finds itself in lofty vision statements, especially in organizations founded for the public good, such as charities and religious organizations.  I think it's unfortunate that it doesn't make its way into every organization's organizing documents and strategies, or at the very least, leadership conversation.

I would suggest considering strategic decision making from the context of love, drawing the widest possible circle first  (the planet, humanity), then drawing consecutively smaller circles from country to state to city to community to organization to family and, last,  to self.  Ask first: how does our work improve (or at least not hurt) humanity and help (or at least not hurt) the planet; or, put another way, how are we demonstrating our love of humanity or the planet through our work?  Then, ask similar questions in concentric order about country, state, city, community, organization, family and, finally, yourself.

The reason most organizations' public service work is cynically viewed as a public relations or marketing effort rather than altruism, is because the decision to serve was made within the context of the smaller circles, not beginning with the largest circle first.   We've all had the experience of someone saying they're "doing us a favor" when, in fact, they were clearly thinking of their self-interest first and the fact that it benefited us was purely ancillary.  We see through it as a shallow, self-interested gesture.  It's no different at the organizational level.

If others don't believe that an organization's vision is driven from a love of humanity, but is rather driven for a love of whatever the organization considers is in its best interest, without consideration of whether it serves the largest circles first, then any attempt it makes to appear altruistic will be viewed as as exactly that: an attempt to appear altruistic.

When individuals and organizations get into trouble, I guarantee they aren't "leading from the widest circle first."  They chose a smaller circle, perhaps the smallest: how does this benefit me?  Or, they go no further than the organization circle:  what's in the company's best interest (it's profits), then to the smaller circle of self (my profits from the company's profits).   Frequently, the widest circle politicians lead from is the constituency circle.  Or, at the highest levels of government, the national circle.  The worst behavior in government comes from this type of leadership.

Conversely, the best in leadership comes from those who lead from the widest circle first.  One need only think of the most admired leaders and organizations.  They all start from the widest circle first: how does my/our work make the world better for everyone?  Though they may have been interested in advancing the well-being of a constituency (civil rights for minorities, for example), they led from the context of a better world (a world where people are judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin).

There is a word Zen monk Thich Nhat Hahn has coined: interbeing.  Isn't it obvious, he says, that we "inter-are"? I didn't farm the food in my refrigerator or generate the electricity powering my house. I depend on the the farmer or the power company for these, and they in turn depend on me to pay for these items so that they can feed their families and pay their employees.

In other words, I cannot take a small circle action (not paying my power bill, for example) that doesn't affect someone else.  And when it affects someone else, it affects me (my rates go up to compensate for the non-paying customers like me).  The more globally intertwined organizations and economies become, the more obvious it becomes that, as among cells in a body, sickness and wellness spread quickly.

If you have trouble calling it leading with love, call it leading from the widest circle first instead.  Either way, if you practice it, you will be an extraordinary leader.