leadership competencies

Is Transparency Always a Good Thing?

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by Jim Funk

Businesswoman and question mark on blackboardThe news I received last month was unexpected, disappointing, and maddening. My alma mater, St. Joseph’s College, announced they would be “suspending operations” at their Rensselaer, Indiana campus after the end of the spring semester. This decision was made by the Board of Trustees, based on a dire financial situation at the college that the majority of the members believed could not be turned around. The students, faculty, alumni, and town were all caught off guard. The Alumni Association responded quickly, saying they believe the college can be saved. They are undertaking a major fundraising effort on their own to try and reverse the decision, but only time will tell whether their efforts will work.

There have been criticisms leveled at the Board and Administration for not being transparent about the financial situation, and not acting early enough to properly address the problem. The backlash, and the ultimate result that the school is suspending operations, may be indicators that transparency was needed long before now. The Chairman of the Board recently issued a statement saying that they thought sending out an SOS would have been unproductive. The Board thought that sharing information about the school’s financial hardships would discourage potential donors from giving, rather than encourage them to help. I would also guess there was a lot of discussion about whether students would continue to come to St. Joseph’s if they knew of the financial problems. We don’t know the answer, but we do know that many people are upset, and now the future of the college is in jeopardy.

I know from my years working in Human Resources that there are many situations discussed in the administrative suites and board rooms of companies and organizations—in practically any industry—that beg the question of transparency. When those in charge know certain facts, their communication choices can be critical. For example, in a situation where there are likely going to be layoffs, prudence calls for a well-thought out communication plan that has a clear sequence of steps, timing and messaging. Most leaders easily see why such care and planning is necessary. What about situations that are not so clear-cut, or where there is disagreement among the decision-makers about what information should be shared?

Opening the books: A decision of transparency

I decided to do a little more research on transparency in the business world. I spoke with Anne Godbout, Executive Director of Spiritours, an Economy of Communion business located in Montreal, Quebec. I know Anne to be an honest and forthright leader, so I asked her whether she had ever gone through a time when she found transparency to be a challenge.  It didn’t take her long to think of a situation she recently faced. She told me how her company was not able to meet their financial goals last year, so she had to inform the employees that there would not be a team bonus. Later one of the employees found out that the company had made a significant donation to a charity during the previous year. The employee started telling other employees about it, and suggested it was probably the cause of the financial shortfall that resulted in no bonuses.

When Anne learned of this, she considered sharing the company’s financial records with all the employees—something she had not done before. Of course, a private company has no obligation to open their books to the employees, but she thought that maybe it would help them understand there were other factors involved, and the charitable contribution was not the cause. She worried, though, because she said it’s tricky to show employees financial information that they may not fully understand. Despite the risk of further misunderstanding, she decided to go ahead and review the company’s books with all the employees in order to reassure them and rebuild trust. After doing so, she said she felt right away she had done the right thing. The employees better understood the situation and appreciated Anne’s openness with them. Now she continues to share financial records with them, as she believes they deserve to know more about matters that could impact them, and they deserve to feel trusted. In turn, she finds they trust her more, too.

Holistic Leadership calls for transparencyholistic-leader-competencies-transparent

In my Holistic Leadership competency model, being transparent is one of the nine characteristics that is critical to successful leadership and successful organizations. Holistic leaders are open, honest, direct, and forthright in the way they act and communicate. This doesn’t mean they are indiscriminate with the timing or the information that is shared. Rather, they understand when people are being impacted by certain situations and they willingly share the information that matters at the appropriate time. These leaders communicate clearly in a direct and honest fashion, which earns respect from colleagues.

But is transparency always a good thing?

It is a fair question to ask. Surely everyone isn’t always on a need-to-know basis. How does the leader know when and how to be transparent? Such decisions require the leader to:

1) Take time to reflect on the implications of transparency, and of withholding information;

2) Talk with trusted confidants or other colleagues who can share honest feedback and advice;

3) Display courage in meetings with other decision-makers by speaking up when the decision or the communication plan doesn’t seem right.

Of these three, I would actually list the last one as the most important, and in some ways the most difficult. Courage is not only critical to making good decisions about transparency, but also to the initial decision itself. Leaders must ask themselves: Is the decision the right thing to do? And when we communicate this news, can we do so with honesty and integrity, knowing we made our best decision?

To do what is truly right, there is a sequence, place and time for transparency, so that it does not create unnecessary misunderstandings or pre-empt the elements of a good communication plan.

Going back to my opening story, I hope that St. Joseph’s College will somehow recover from their current financial crisis. I look back fondly on my four years at the institution. I found it to be an exceptional and unique educational experience that prepared me well for my career and my life. I love their motto, “Involved for Life,” which is truly what they teach and encourage in their graduates. If there is an opportunity to take the college into the future, people will expect the leaders to be vigilant about communicating with the transparency that was missing in recent years.

We can all learn from these difficult lessons. Things don’t automatically get better if we avoid sharing bad news. In tough situations, the smartest thing we can do is to consider the people involved and the possible outcomes of disclosing information. Leaders who go through this process will be respected by their colleagues, even when they are faced with delivering bad news.

 

Jim Funk is a consultant who helps leaders, teams and organizations discover and develop their full potential. He is passionate in believing that strong leadership competence combined with the leader’s personal characteristics, values and virtues are key to achieving goals and driving business results. In addition to his work at J L Funk & Associates, Jim has served on various boards and commissions, and is currently a member of the Economy of Communion in North America Commission. Learn more about Jim’s work at www.jlfunk.com and www.linkedin.com/in/jlfunk or e-mail him at jim@jlfunk.com.

Are You an Ethical Leader? How Do You (Really) Know?

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Man Reading the Definition of EthicsMost leaders consider themselves to be ethical, but some of the behaviors that underlie the core competency of Integrity may not be as easy as they sound. There are pressures in business to make financial, personnel, contracting and other decisions every day that carry ethical implications—everything from honesty in reporting travel expenses, hiring contractors in accordance with IRS regulations, following general accounting standards, accurately projecting and reporting earnings, paying all taxes that are owed, and so on. Unfortunately, we have all heard about the careers of individual leaders, as well as the viability of entire organizations, that have gone down the tubes due to ethical lapses.

There are many forces out there which make ethical leadership a challenge at times. There are pressures to make decisions quickly, produce reports that are favorable for stockholders and potential investors, make things look good to the boss, to the board, and to company employees. There is a very real temptation to spin things positively, in ways we may think others will like, or in some cases in order to be self-serving.

How can leaders be consistently ethical, and even agree on what it means to lead ethically? In describing the characteristics of my Holistic Leadership compholistic-leader-competencies-ethicaletency model, I propose that “ethical” leaders effectively use critical thinking skills, as well as their acute sense of right and wrong, to make ethical choices and “test” them before moving forward. When it comes to making decisions that affect people, it is a matter of treating others the way we would like to be treated—known as the golden rule. By “testing” decisions, I mean validating decisions with other leaders who are looking through an ethical lens, and in some cases talking with key stakeholders who will be affected by the decision to learn what they would consider to be fair or unfair.

Doing the Right Thing

Let’s look at a couple of examples. I spoke with business owner John Mundell, President of Mundell & Associates environmental consulting firm, an Economy of Communion business. He tells a story about a time when his company was pressured to make a political contribution in order to keep a municipal contract. He decided to make a small contribution, but along with the check he sent a letter saying that the purpose of the contribution was to encourage participation of citizens in the electoral process, and not to gain preferential treatment in contracting with the agency. He asked that the only basis they should use to consider him for future work was his company’s ability to deliver high quality environmental services to those who need his services. Period.

What happened was not totally surprising to him, but it was disappointing. Five new contracts were awarded, and his company did not receive one. It turned out that officials of all five companies personally knew the high-ranking political decision makers, and they had given much larger contributions than Mundell’s company. His first thought was, “Should I have given more?” but his second thought was, “…and sell my soul?” He felt at peace that he had done the right thing, and he believed that in the end good things would eventually happen if he continued to act ethically.

As it turned out, the next day Mundell was awarded a contract by another private party based on the quality of their work, and it was double the value of the municipal contract. As he reflected on this experience, Mundell said he was reminded that we are often put face-to-face with some darker realities in the world, and we would do well to step back and view our options in the light of ethical practices and an understanding of what is right.

The Golden Rule at Work

My second example comes from the Vice President of Human Resources for Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, Chuck Davis. The restaurant chain is known for their core philosophy of putting associates first. I asked Davis how they put this philosophy into practice day to day, and whether that ever leads to ethical dilemmas. His answer was that they try and give associates the benefit of the doubt; they seek to understand before making assumptions, and yes indeed, that can lead to ethical dilemmas.

In one situation, an associate had been caught stealing $60 from the cash register. Davis’ first thought, a very normal HR posture, was to simply fire the associate based on his dishonest act. The owner, Cameron Mitchell, encouraged Davis to ask a few more questions. Why did he steal the money? What was his situation at the time? Investigating further, Davis discovered the associate had stolen the money to support a drug habit, which in Davis’ view was another reason to let the associate go. But as he discussed the matter further with Mitchell, when considering the associate as a person—and not simply as the bad behavior he exhibited—the question that arose was, “How can we help?”

They decided not to give up on the associate. If he would agree to get the help he needed they would give him a second chance and let him keep his job. It turned out the associate was able to make the necessary personal changes and correct his problem. According to Davis, the ethical dilemma was weighing the value of honesty with compassion for the associate’s situation. Looking at the associate as a person first, they gave him a second chance if he would do his part. And he did. They treated him the way they would like to be treated—the golden rule.

This story made me pause. In my past role as an HR executive, had I ever asked these questions when I was about to let someone go: “Why did he/she do this?” and “How can we help?”

Putting Ethical Leadership into Practice

In closing, let’s go back to the question in the title of this article. How do you (really) know you are an ethical leader? This question invites you to be brutally honest with yourself: What are your real motivations and drivers? What are your assumptions? What are your blind spots? How are you rationalizing a certain decision? Are you testing decisions with others?

In addition to this type of self-reflection, another test is to ask the question that one of my previous CEOs taught me: “If my family knew the decision I am about to make, and why, would they be proud of me?” Give this question a try—it’s a powerful way to ask yourself if you’re doing the right thing. Ethical leaders are not afraid to ask, and they are not afraid to act based on the answer.

Jim Funk is a consultant who helps leaders, teams and organizations discover and develop their full potential. He is passionate in believing that strong leadership competence combined with the leader’s personal characteristics, values and virtues are key to achieving goals and driving business results. In addition to his work at J L Funk & Associates, Jim has served on various boards and commissions, and is currently a member of the Economy of Communion in North America Commission. Learn more about Jim’s work at www.jlfunk.com and www.linkedin.com/in/jlfunk or e-mail him at jim@jlfunk.com.

Leading with Virtue

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by Jim Funk

Gears Going Up Values Belief Integrity Faith Virtue

I recently conducted a workshop for a group of successful physicians about leading with virtue. At the beginning of the session, I asked the question, “What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘virtue’?” The responses varied from one of the dictionary definitions (moral excellence), to things like seeking perfection, having integrity, doing what is right, having a strong character, and being courageous.

We agreed that these are all valid descriptions of a virtuous person, and then we talked about why virtue is important in leadership. Leaders become the way they are from the inside out—meaning that who they are as a person impacts what they do and how they lead. If integrity is lacking in a leader’s behavior, it is probably because integrity is lacking in the leader. Thus, virtues are not only behaviors, but positive dispositions and attitudes that can guide leaders in making decisions that are good, right, courageous and prudent—and that will help ensure the organization’s success.

holistic-leader-competencies-virtuous“Virtuous” is one of the nine key characteristics I have identified for Holistic Leadership, which is a person-centered way to lead that considers the whole person—body, mind and spirit—in how others are directed, motivated, evaluated, rewarded, and given the opportunity to use their particular gifts and talents. This is important not only for the development of employees as people, it is also critical to organizations being able to meet its goals and objectives—to be sustainable and successful.

There are a number of virtues that I have observed to be critical to effective leadership, but I will focus on five in particular: Courage, Prudence, Justice, Temperance and Humility. What do we see in leaders who embody these virtues? Let’s use the leadership competency of effective decision-making as an example.

  • Courageous leaders are able to overcome difficulties in seeking what is good and right, even in the face of adversity and pressure to make a different decision. For example, it requires courage to stand up for what the leader believes is right, even when his or her opinion is clearly in the minority, or unpopular.
  • Leaders who practice the virtue of Prudence apply practical wisdom to their decision making. When pressured to make a quick decision, for example, the prudent leader knows when there has been the right amount of deliberation and dialogue before moving forward.
  • Just leaders are fair, and they respect the rights of all human persons. For example, they make compensation decisions that ensure their employees receive wages and benefits that are competitive, and that even the lowest paid workers at least receive a “living wage” to be able to meet their basic needs.
  • Temperance is acting in moderation, and keeping things in balance. Leaders who model work-life balance more often make the decision not to work that extra hour or two, but to go home to their families at the end of the workday.
  • Humility is not only about not exaggerating our abilities and accomplishments, but it is about affirming the innermost, true nature of who we are. Leaders who are humble do not take credit for the work others do, and they are willing to admit when they are wrong. They decide to be vulnerable.

Some might say, “Sure, I agree that these are good qualities, but what do they really have to do with organizational sustainability and getting results? Isn’t it enough to just do what needs to be done, and hold people accountable?” Let’s go back to the physicians I described earlier. Can you imagine going to a doctor who takes a certain path simply because it is easier? Prudent healthcare professionals do not make decisions that way. Rather, they make sure various treatment plan options have been thoroughly considered before deciding which one to recommend. It wouldn’t take many situations with a lack of prudent decision-making in the practice of medicine to negatively impact the trust of colleagues and patients, and the sustainability of the practice.

While this might be obvious, we can call to mind numerous cases of executive and leadership decision making that was not virtuous, and the result was usually the removal of the leader from the role, and at worst, the demise of the company.

What does it take for leaders to be virtuous? First and foremost, they need to be willing to undertake the “inner work” of becoming aware of their own character strengths and opportunities. I recommend an instrument that I have used with various leadership groups called the VIA Survey, available through the VIA Institute on Character. Ideally take the free VIA Survey and then upgrade to either the VIA Pro or the VIA Me report for a nominal cost, which gives people good feedback and insight into their particular values and virtues. There are also many resources on their website about ways to both use one’s character strengths, and to boost those that are not as strong.

Leaders need to be lifelong learners and be willing to practice in order to be virtuous. They must learn from their own experiences and those of others, as well as remain open to honest feedback. Finally, they need to be willing to practice and build the skills and behaviors of virtuous leaders. Virtues develop through practice, and from cultivating them over time. Coaching or mentoring from a leader who has moved further along in the journey of becoming virtuous can be a particularly great resource.

Do you work for a leader who you would consider “virtuous?” What was it like? How do you think they got that way? I invite you to write about your experience in reply to this blog, or e-mail me at jim@jlfunk.com with your story. I would like to hear from you!

Jim Funk is a consultant who helps leaders, teams and organizations discover and develop their full potential. He is passionate in believing that strong leadership competence combined with the leader’s personal characteristics, values and virtues are key to achieving goals and driving business results. In addition to his work at J L Funk & Associates, Jim has served on various boards and commissions, and is currently a member of the Economy of Communion in North America Commission. Learn more about Jim’s work at www.jlfunk.com and www.linkedin.com/in/jlfunk or e-mail him at jim@jlfunk.com.

9 Characteristics of Holistic Leaders

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by Jim Funk

Holistic Leader Competencies Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 8.01.49 AM

Traditional leadership competence has been about behavior—what a leader is capable of doing in the workplace. That approach describes desired actions, but it overlooks the character traits that are crucial for guiding those actions. A more complete model of leadership competence goes beyond actions to describe who the leader is as a person. I refer to this model as holistic leadership.

Holistic leaders know how to integrate their character and values into their leadership, and they understand that they bring their whole selves to their leadership role – body, mind and spirit. In observing these leaders, I have identified the following nine key characteristics that I believe set them apart from others.

Virtuous

Virtue is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as, “Conformity to a standard of right; a particular moral excellence.” It is not only the holistic leader’s behavior that is virtuous, but his or her disposition and attitude toward the good; toward what is right. When virtues become part of who a person is, the person is in turn more disposed toward virtuous actions. These show up as behaviors and decisions, which are guided by moral excellence. One particular virtue that is critical to holistic leadership is that of humility. The humble leader is able to admit faults, to ask forgiveness, and to be vulnerable and authentic.

Ethical

Leaders are frequently faced with making decisions when circumstances aren’t black and white. Critical thinking skills and an acute sense of right and wrong are paramount to being able to consistently and reliably evaluate possibilities and make ethical choices before moving forward. When it comes to the ethical treatment of people, it really boils down to treating others the way he or she would like to be treated—known as the golden rule.

Transparent

Holistic leaders are open, honest, direct and forthright in the way they act and communicate. This doesn’t mean they are indiscriminate with the timing and information that is shared. Rather, they understand when people are impacted by certain situations and they willingly share the information that matters at the appropriate time. Transparency is also linked to the virtue of humility, because holistic leaders are willing to be vulnerable and admit when they don’t have all the answers or things don’t go according to plan.

Trusted

When leaders are truthful and follow through with what they say they will do, they build strong relationships with their colleagues. This becomes the foundation for trust, which at the end of the day also enables getting work done efficiently and effectively. It is also important to recognize that trust comes not only from one’s character, but also from competence, or capability. It is one thing to make a promise, but the leader needs to be able to follow through with more than just good intentions.

Capable

This characteristic is about being able to functionally get the job done. Effective leaders must be able to craft a vision, engage others in following that vision, create a plan, execute the plan, and drive results. While character matters to a very great extent, a leader will not be effective without these competencies that deem him or her capable.

Balanced

Holistic leaders have a balanced view of others, work, teams, and themselves as a composite of body, mind and spirit. These leaders take good care of themselves while supporting others in self-care as well. This plays out in a positive work-life balance, but also as avoidance of any negative “isms” that can be extreme (e.g., workaholism, absolutism, dualism, egoism, and hedonism.)

Aware

Awareness is a critical characteristic of holistic leadership, because it is required for emotional intelligence. As described by Daniel Goleman in his book, Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ, awareness of self and others is key to being able to manage one’s emotions and relationships. Leaders who are not open to feedback, do not ask for it, or do not know how to receive and process it with an open mind, continue to have blind spots that can derail them. Self-awareness also requires humility—the ability to see ourselves as we really are, even when we don’t care for some aspects of that picture.

Servant

Much has been written in recent years on the topic of Servant Leadership. Robert Greenleaf wrote, “The servant leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.”* This dynamic is similar to what I described earlier for Virtuous. When being a servant becomes part of who a person is, the person is in turn more disposed toward service. Holistic leaders are servants first because they are focused on people and their needs. They know that work gets done through people, and when their needs are met they are more likely to be engaged and be at their best.

Inspired

I once got into a debate with a colleague about whether holistic leaders are inspired or inspiring. Which comes first? I believe it is both. The leader’s own inspiration becomes inspiring to others. When the leader brings inspiration along with authenticity, people can sense that the leader is genuine—the real deal. There is also an aspect of inspiration that is linked to faith. While this may or may not be religious faith, it is when leaders recognize they are part of something larger. They know that inspiration comes not only from within, but from outside oneself as well.

How Can You Develop Holistic Leadership?

If you aspire to be a leader who embodies these characteristics, or if you would like to adopt this leadership model in your organization, there are several things you can consider. Individual leadership coaching can be a very effective way of gaining self-awareness and building holistic leadership practices. And organizationally, creating a leadership competency model that spells out the expectations and development opportunities for the 9 characteristics of holistic leadership is a good place to start. But in the end, a leadership program will only be effective if it also addresses who the leader is as a person and not simply what he or she can do. That is the key to holistic leadership.

In my next blog I will talk about what it is like to work for holistic leaders who have the characteristics I am describing, including some compelling stories from members of their teams.

Source:
*Robert K. Greenleaf, The Servant Leader, 1970

Jim Funk is a consultant who helps leaders, teams and organizations discover and develop their full potential. He is passionate in believing that strong leadership competence combined with the leader’s personal characteristics, values and virtues are key to achieving goals and driving business results. In addition to his work at J L Funk & Associates, Jim has served on various boards and commissions, and is currently a member of the Economy of Communion in North America Commission. Learn more about Jim’s work at www.jlfunk.com and www.linkedin.com/in/jlfunk or e-mail him at jim@jlfunk.com.