Thursday, June 20, 2013

Will Your Leadership Put Your Organization on the Front of the Washington Post?

When I started working for non-profits twenty years ago, the guiding principle for everything was "Would we be embarrassed if this ended up on the front of the Washington Post?"  It is a simple rule, but it works.

Let's face it, there are times when you can explain why you are doing something with very logical, rational, productive, and economic reasons and so you feel like it might be okay to go ahead.  Honestly, my rule is even if I can explain something I do not want to put my organization in the place of needing to explain anything.  If I have to explain it for people to understand, it probably is not the "right" course of action.

So why are we seeing so many things on the front of the Washington Post that are embarrassing to individuals and organizations?  Do they not know about this simple rule?  Or is sheer fear for organizational survival (and individuals to survive in an organization) pushing people away from this rule?

If you want to lead your organization in a values-based way, you need to create that culture by valuing those who give you perspectives you do not have.Think about your staff.  Is the pressure on them to do things so strong that people are afraid to say no or voice a contrary opinion?  Worse yet, are you creating this culture without even knowing it?  Think about this, when was the last time someone said to you "we may not want to do that because..." and how did you react to that person.  (HINT: If you are a leader and you haven't heard that in the last 24 hours you have a problem.)

Leaders who value ideas and ideals and who have guiding values create cultures with the same.  Leaders who are looking for loopholes and people to justify what they want, create cultures where that is what they get.

There are many times, as a leader, that you may have an amazing idea and tell those who work for you, "we should..."  If they do not come back to you and say, "I heard you say X and I want you to know that X will cost Y in terms of dollars, staff time, or both" your employees are blindly acting and not independently applying the Washington Post test, the stated corporate values, or ideals.  This is very dangerous.  As a leader, you cannot know everything that is going on.  If your people do not trust you enough to give you relevant information when it is needed, you will eventually end up on the front of the Washington Post.

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard someone justify their behavior by hiding behind a regulation, guideline, or statute's loophole.  Let me tell you a little secret, these things are written by humans and they are not perfect.  They have loopholes.  It does not take a genius to find it and exploit it.  If the problem is too severe, a new rule will usually be created to close the loophole.  That also will be written by humans, and again, it will not be perfect.  The US Tax Code is as big as it is and there is an entire industry of people employed around this continuing battle.  The fact of the matter is, not everyone values the idea of citizens financing the government (or how the government is using those funds) and so there will always be those for whom not paying taxes is their highest value.  Knowing that others are not paying their share slowly erodes at others' incentive to keep up.

I had the opportunity to work with an organization this weekend where the members are united behind a common purpose.  Everything from the corporate messaging to the volunteer management is checked on the common ideals and values of the members.  I would actually love to have the Washington Post do an article about how they are taking a corporate policy that is rule-based and encouraging members to understand not only the rule, but the purpose behind the rule (the WHY) and to act in accordance with the WHY (and the values) even when they could act otherwise and still be in compliance with the letter of the rule.  In this case, the rules relate to the health and dignity of the members.  The organization is encouraging the members to place the health and dignity of others above all else even if no rules are being broken.  This organization is encouraging members to consider their actions in light of a higher ideal.  This is such an amazing concept and yet, as I look around, it is so foreign in our modern-day life.

In any circumstance, the more aligned your values are with those behind a rule, the less likely you are to look for a loophole.  And as long as people are searching for loopholes (in anything) they will find them whether it is the Tax Code or The Washington Post test.  If you want to lead your organization in a values-based way, you need to create that culture by valuing those who give you perspectives you do not have.

What culture have you created?  When was the last time you stood up for a principle even though no actual rules were being broken?  What was the reaction?  Would you quit your job if faced with a conflict between your direction and your values?