Leadership Stories

“Our values are our strength.”

“Our people are our greatest resource.”

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We could go on, but pointing out the hypocrisy evident in the difference between the words written on the organizational masthead, and the actual organizational action, has been written about to death.

Leadership in many organizations is tricky for a variety of reasons, but the primary one is that organizational values are often seen as a marketing tool for advertising to external and internal stakeholders about how great the organization really is, rather than as a daily, lived ethic in the trenches. For the latest example of this disconnect, see the publication of the most recent “expose” of working conditions at Amazon.com.

There are inertia issues in all organizations, when the culture, much like a child, just begins to grow out of hand.

But leadership requires guiding that growth, especially through conflict situations, disappointments, economic downturns, and other unforeseen troubles. It is in a crisis that true values, competencies, and strengths are exposed, to say nothing of weaknesses.

Leadership Assumptions About Reconciliation

Nowhere is this more evident than when an organization has to seek reconciliation with another entity (a person, another organization, etc.) that they have wronged–or who has wronged them.

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Leadership—management, supervisors, etc.—in organizations view reconciliation in the same way that many individuals in the general public do:

  • They believe that reconciliation means returning to the status quo of the relationship before the conflict occurred—it doesn’t.
  • They believe that reconciliation provides the other party (who they still think is in the wrong) with the tools and means to hurt them again—it doesn’t.
  • They believe that reconciliation prevents justice, truth, and “the real story’ from being known to the public (i.e. other parties not involved directly in the conflict) and thus being unattainable in the future—it doesn’t.

These three wrong assumptions haunt the ability for leaders to step out of their protective, organizational shells and do the hard work of forgiveness (another thing that’s not often talked about), provide apologies (something rare to even hear), and seek reconciliation (name the last time this happened with a public or private organization).

Leadership Sometimes Breaks Cultures to Save Them

For leaders to break the culture of the organization and to seek reconciliation, they must first break the culture of themselves and be willing to dance with vulnerability and fear and focus on long-term growth rather than short-term stock prices.

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There are three places to start this process:

The culture must be reorganized philosophically around the long game—this is the hardest step, which is why we put it first. Organizational philosophy begins with the founders or owners and filters down to everybody else in the organization. Leaders below the founder/owner level are either told directly what the philosophy or are left to figure it out themselves from nonverbal cueing and behavioral tics exhibited by other leaders. Articulating the principles of the long game and the philosophy behind it has to come from the owners/founders. If it doesn’t, the leaders will organize around their own short games which can damage the organization in the long term.

The culture must be articulated—Having a meeting is not always the best way to do this. We heard a story from a high producing sales employee in an organization that reflects this. The story focused on some conflict scenarios going on in the hierarchical structure that the employee didn’t understand. The employee stated that the only reason she was still at the company in the midst of all of the conflict, was that a leader she respected (instead of calling a meeting) actually came out of the sales field and talked to her directly. That’s a leader articulating culture through action rather than through a meeting.

The leaders must be humble internally and externally—many leaders believe that humility is best left to the marketing department and that brash, arrogant, or out of whack pronouncements are the way to create and manage change, push employees to do their best, and get innovations out the door. But here’s the dichotomy: Humility is a character trait, arrogance is a marketing tool and the public (and internal and external stakeholders) are not always going to know the difference.

To build a culture where apology, forgiveness, and reconciliation with another party in a conflict is even possible, first, there must be the environment for such things to even happen in the first place. The core of much of designing a system for resolving conflicts internally and externally that leaders can advocate for, followers can believe in, and external parties can trust in, begins with philosophy and continues with internal humility.

Such developments transform past the masthead proclamations and get to the core of what organizations really are, what their leaders really believe, and what their teams can really accomplish.


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