The ‘feel’ of ethics in leadership

October 1, 2012
Filed under Ethics

Dave Durand writes that leaders can inspire a range of emotions in others — both good and bad, some on purpose and others inadvertently. Even though leading is more important that inspiring positive feelings, leaders should be aware of how they make others feel in order to be fully effective. Ultimately, he says, leaders should lead with humility . . .

Dave Durand

by Dave Durand

Recently my friend and mentor passed away. He spent 62 of his 88 years in life as an entrepreneur. He taught me many things over two decades. Some lessons were complex, yet others simple.

One primary lesson he shared with me summarizes what he stood for, and I’ll carry it with me for the rest of my life. He often said, “People will not always remember what you said. They will not necessarily remember what you did, but they will always remember how you made them feel.”

The “feel” we convey to others may be the most powerful tool for creating results or destroying possibilities for leaders. In many cases, the way people feel about you actually classifies the way in which they perceive your ethics. People often claim sales people who pressure customers are unethical. However, everyone has a different threshold for feeling pressured. In many cases the sales person is not trying to apply pressure, rather he is just being enthusiastic. So how can such a subjective thing as sales pressure be perceived and labeled in such an objective way as to be called unethical?

The answer is that it doesn’t really matter why because, even though feelings are an unfair evaluation of ethics, they are the primary driver of perception. Most people perceive “your ethics” based on how you make them feel. So paying attention to the way you make others feel is essential. This reality doesn’t mean that leaders should attempt to sugar coat all situations, appease followers, or lead only after taking a poll. It does, however, mean they should be intentional about what feelings their words and actions will convey. It’s tragic when a leader makes an ethical decision but communicates it in a way that weakens his organization’s morale.

Leaders inspire a range of emotions in others — some intentional, others inadvertent. The four primary emotions that produce action or apathy are: importance, empowerment, being belittled or feeling hamstrung. Take note that these feelings are personal feelings, not opinions about the leader. It’s often said that it’s better for leaders to be respected and unpopular than it is to be liked and not respected. This is true but it’s also a distinction that misses the point of leadership and distracts a leader from a better objective. A mature leader pays much less attention to whether or not he is liked or respected and way more attention to how the people he leads feel about themselves, rather than about him. By default, a leader who makes people feel empowered and important will be respected and, in most cases, liked. But those are secondary benefits to the primary goal.

On the other hand, a leader who makes people feel hamstrung can actually, and ironically, be well liked. Consider politicians who tell the message of doom and gloom while promising to “give” help to the helpless. The purpose of such a message is to make followers feel helpless and dependent on the leader. Such leaders intentionally weaken their followers in order to increase their own personal perceived power. On the opposite side of the spectrum, leaders who don’t desire popularity but fail to equip their followers with the tools they need to help themselves, also conjure up the feeling of being hamstrung. Either way, being hamstrung is a feeling that never produces results.

As Catholics, we are taught from a young age that we should know our value because we are children of God who loves us. Obviously, if God loves us we must be important. In addition, the gospel tells us that we can do all things though Christ who strengthens us. God our Father is the perfect example of leadership so we are wise to inspire these feelings in the people we lead.

On the other hand, the evil one can make us feel falsely important — or he belittles us and causes fear and doubt. He attempts to make us feel hamstrung by stripping from us the gifts of the Holy Spirit. His greatest weapon is despair, the ultimate dagger in the back of our thighs. Leaders who emulate him can be popular with those who don’t know better. But given enough time, that leader’s true colors come out and even the deceived become aware.

Key to leaders’ inspiring positive feelings in others are truth and humility. Humble leaders who adhere to the truth empower their followers with feelings of independence and strength. When leaders lead in truth and humility, they have greater odds of being ethical and of imparting feelings that build trust.

Dave Durand is the best-selling author of “Perpetual Motivation” and “Say This, Not That.” He is a business executive and trainer of over 100,000 individuals in sales, marketing and business management. An abridged version of this article appeared in the October 2012 issue of Legatus magazine.

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